Meet Sarah Finkelstein, the new chair of Earth Sciences

August 17, 2021 by Karyn Gorra - Department of Earth Sciences

Sarah Finkelstein began her research career as an undergraduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology studying tropical forest dynamics in Panama. 

It was at the University of Cambridge while working on her master’s degree that her research interest began to shift. 

“Over countless departmental tea breaks and at our college pub, all the students in the quaternary science program wowed me with their talk about stratigraphies and paleoclimatic reconstructions,” she says.  

“I began to realize how important Earth history is to understanding present day processes, and to understanding ongoing and future changes.”  

At that point, Finkelstein made the leap to paleo sciences. She eventually received her PhD in physical geography at U of T and after a postdoctoral position at the University of Ottawa, she returned to U of T as a faculty member in 2006. 

“I’ve continued to be interested in using the lens of Earth history to understand how ecosystems change over time and vulnerabilities to climate change,” she says of her research. “And I’ve kept up my interests in the Great Lakes region while developing new projects in Nunavut and the far north of Ontario.” 

In 2021, Finkelstein was appointed the new chair of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Earth Sciences. Recently, she spoke about her career and the department. 

In addition to your experience at Cambridge, what else convinced you to pursue a career in earth sciences?

I grew up in cities — Montreal and Toronto — but was always drawn to ravines, parks and the waterfront. I loved spending time as a kid at cottages and summer camps around Ontario, identifying trees and collecting rocks. I always knew I wanted to work in a field where I could spend time outdoors or in a lab trying to understand the mysteries of our amazing planet. Initially, my motivation was sheer curiosity, which I still feel, but now I also see careers in earth sciences as very important for solving some of the most daunting challenges we face.

You’ve successfully found a career where you can work outdoors. What’s your most interesting field research location?

I’ve had the great privilege of working in northern Canada — including Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and northern Ontario — for many years. If I had to pick one, I would highlight the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands, the territory of the Omushkego Cree known as Na Taski Nan. This is Canada’s largest wetland and one of the most significant wetlands on Earth. It is home to vast peatlands storing enormous quantities of carbon, as well as extremely detailed paleoenvironmental records for the Holocene, parts of the Pleistocene and beyond. 

How do you feel about being the first female chair of Earth Sciences? 

I am very proud. I know I’m standing on the shoulders of amazing women who came before me in this department and within the academic community more broadly, who had to fight hard to be seen as scientists and to achieve basic equity including access to benefits such as maternity leave. I’d like to thank all of them and their allies. 

What are your plans and priorities for the department?

Top of mind for me is recovering from the pandemic. COVID-19 had a significant impact on our department and on geosciences more broadly. I’m keen to ensure that our department is supporting everyone as we slowly return to in-person activities and move forward from this very difficult experience in a positive way. During my term as chair, I will also be looking to build on the already impressive efforts underway in Earth Sciences to support equity, diversity, inclusion and reconciliation and make sure we are leaders on that front.  

What would you say to a student looking for a science program at U of T?

If you want to have a big impact on the world and contribute toward global efforts to ensure a safe future for humanity and Earth’s biodiversity, please come join us in earth sciences. We need you! We need diverse voices and minds to solve some of the greatest challenges facing us, including climate change and the need for sustainable energy and resources. Last year in my introductory earth sciences/physical geography course we looked at the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and were able to relate almost every single one of them to geoscience topics including energy, sustainable resources and economies, climate action, soils and food production, hazards, clean water, marine and terrestrial ecosystems, health and well-being and the equitable partnerships needed to realize these goals. 

If you could travel back in geologic time, what would be your first stop and why?

My research has focused mainly on the last two million years of geological time known as the Quaternary Period. But my work on peatlands and carbon accumulation has brought me into some new collaborations on abrupt climate changes in earlier time periods. For example, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum which took place around 55 million years ago was a “hyperthermal,” or very warm period, and was characterized by rapid changes in the carbon cycle. I think it would be pretty interesting, and also pretty sobering, to witness those kinds of impacts up close. Learning about Earth’s incredible history is very humbling, and I think it serves as a great framework for thinking about the role of humanity in Earth systems.