Dean Jaakko Kangasjärvi, a pioneer in plant physiology, is no longer with us

Dean Jaakko Kangasjärvi of the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences passed away in May. On 8 June 2024, the University honours his memory by flying flags at half-mast on Viikki Campus.

Professor of Plant Biology Jaakko Kangasjärvi served as dean of the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki from 2018 to 2024. He died of a rapidly progressing serious disease at the age of 64 on 16 May 2024.

As a researcher, dean and human being, Kangasjärvi’s key characteristics included resourcefulness, integrity, profundity and intensity. Kangasjärvi received his doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota, focusing in his doctoral thesis on plastid genome dynamics. Kangasjärvi’s academic career began with a study where he explored the coping mechanisms of thale cress, a botanical model species, when it comes into contact with the environmental toxin ozone. He was one of the first to realise that the way in which ozone harms plants was not – in Kangasjärvi’s own words – murder, but rather an assisted suicide mechanism. From this insight, his research quickly expanded to encompass the physiological and genetic adaptation mechanisms of plants in general. He also led the mapping of the birch genome and contributed to the mapping of the poplar genome. 

In fact, the groundbreaking scholarly publications related to these studies are so internationally well-known and widely cited that Kangasjärvi was one of the few Finnish scientists to reach the internationally esteemed Highly Cited Researchers list. Over the years, Kangasjärvi contributed to four Centres of Excellence funded by the Research Council of Finland.

Kangasjärvi never appreciated research undertaken using only large and expensive equipment, but instead emphasised the researcher’s own creative thinking and innovative approach, in terms of both individual researchers and extensive Centres of Excellence. It is therefore unsurprising that several of the researchers Kangasjärvi supervised are now professors or research group leaders in Finland or abroad. 

Kangasjärvi was appointed as the dean in 2018. In his position, he, together with the management group and Faculty Council of the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, succeeded in making the Faculty’s research and teaching staff increasingly international. A goal-oriented emphasis on high scholarly standards and fairness in recruitment has resulted in the continuous growth of Faculty’s competitive research funding. Thanks to Kangasjärvi’s determined efforts, the Faculty’s structure was successfully transformed into a whole comprising three research programmes, while the Faculty’s three research stations were merged into a unit of biological stations overseen by a single director. During his deanship, the Faculty was reshaped into an increasingly important societal force, particularly in questions pertaining to human and environmental wellbeing and sustainability.

Kangasjärvi put his broad expertise to use in the development of the University as a whole. He actively contributed to the establishment and growth of the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE), also closely collaborating with his fellow deans to promote research, teaching and public engagement.

Kangasjärvi’s unfailing passion was the development of internal communication, and he kept actively in contact with various staff groups, making his most significant decisions as dean always after carefully consulting the entire Faculty. Even though Kangasjärvi supremely mastered the minutiae associated with administration and research policy, he never misused his expertise by offering only one single truth or solution to a specific question.

As a person, Kangasjärvi was attentive and acutely perceptive, and he possessed a phenomenal memory and knowledge of detail. Both colleagues and doctoral researchers supervised by him remember Kangasjärvi as a happy colleague who often told touching stories, while also being highly sensitive to the anecdotes of others.

Kangasjärvi also had a diverse impact on society outside the University. He preferred to spend his free time with his family in his domestic sphere, where his friends and colleagues were always welcome. He also greatly enjoyed gardening, outdoor games and good wine, with ‘discoveries’ made among the latter happily shared also with us colleagues. 

Kangasjärvi developed a vision for his research and teaching, which he actively followed throughout his academic life. While Kangasjärvi emphatically promoted his vision, colleagues and students greatly appreciated him as a democratic and inclusive leader.

In honour of the memory of Jaakko Kangasjärvi, 

Vice-Dean, Professor Atte Korhola
Professor Yrjö Helariutta
Professor Emeritus Kurt Fagerstedt§
Vice-Rector, Professor Jouni Hirvonen

Jaakko Kangasjärvi’s academic career in brief
  • 1990: Licentiate of Philosophy, University of Oulu
  • 1991: Doctoral thesis on plastid genome dynamics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, United States 
  • 1992–1994: Senior Researcher, Senior Assistant, University of Kuopio
  • 1995–1997: Research Unit Leader, Pohjois-Savo Environmental Centre
  • 1997–2001: Group Leader, Institute of Biotechnology, University of Helsinki 
  • 2001–2003: Professor of Plant Physiology and Molecular Biology, University of Turku
  • 2003–2024: Professor of Plant Biology, University of Helsinki
  • 2018–2024: Dean, Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki 
  • ISI Thompson/Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher since 2016
  • Involved in four Centres of Excellence funded by the Research Council of Finland
  • 2008–2015: President of the Scandinavian Plant Biology Society 
  • 2018: Knight, First Class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland