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Meet Professor Sarah Finkelstein – the new Chair of Earth Sciences


Dr. Sarah Finkelstein started a five-year appointment as Chair and Graduate Chair in the Department of Earth Sciences on July 1, 2021. 
photo of Sarah Finkelstein


What is your professional background?

I started out in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as an undergraduate and got my start in research on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone where I had the chance to spend many months in the field for thesis research on tropical forest dynamics. As I further developed those interests in my Masters degree at the University of Cambridge, I socialized over countless Departmental Teas and at our College Pub with all of the students in the Quaternary Science program. They wowed me with their stratigraphies and paleoclimatic reconstructions and I realized how important Earth history is to understanding present day processes, and to understanding ongoing and future changes. So I took a leap into paleo-sciences, and entered the PhD program here at UofT in Physical Geography looking at paleoenvironments in the Lower Great Lakes region and how Holocene paleoclimate and paleohydrology impacted coastal wetlands and forests. This is when I first got to know what was then Geology at UofT through courses I took with Jock McAndrews and Marianne Douglas. Marianne was a great mentor and graciously invited me to her lab on the 4th floor to complete the diatom analysis part of my PhD. I then did a post-doc at Ottawa U focusing on paleoclimate proxies in sediments of Arctic lakes, before starting as a faculty member here at UofT 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, and I’ve kept up my interests in the Great Lakes region while developing new projects in Nunavut and the Far North of Ontario.


What are your plans and priorities for the Department?

I am starting my “listening tour” now and am looking forward to hearing from students, faculty, and staff about their priorities. Top of mind for me is recovering from the pandemic. COVID-19 had a significant impact on our Department and the 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 existing efforts underway in Earth Sciences to support equity, diversity, inclusion and reconciliation in our Department and make sure we are leaders on that front. Finally, we are welcoming a group of truly outstanding new faculty members and students this Fall and I’m looking forward to greeting them and ensuring that everyone has a smooth start to research, teaching and learning.

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

I am very proud. I know I am 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 the allies.

Earth Sciences is a relatively new department at UofT, formed in 2012 when the Department of Geology joined forces with several faculty members from Physical Geography and Geophysics, and built closer ties with the School of the Environment. What opportunities and challenges has that brought?

I am one of the “newer” members of the Department who joined in 2012 from Physical Geography. It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me and the research students in my group to engage with a larger number of geoscientists and to have access to top-notch analytical facilities. I continue to be involved in Physical Geography through graduate student supervision and through teaching, and those activities have been great for promoting cross-disciplinary thinking. The new breadth the Department gained in 2012 has allowed us to reach a broader audience of students and to develop a research climate even more conducive to innovative multi-disciplinary collaborations and that’s been very positive. I am certainly aware of the excellent reputation our Department has in Geology and am committed to also nurturing that during my term as Chair.


Why did you choose an Earth Sciences career?

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 the lab trying to understand the mysteries of our amazing planet. My motivation was initially 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 are facing. When I finished my PhD I decided I’d prefer to never leave a University campus, so very fortunately, here I still am!


What is your favourite course to teach?

I have taught a first-year introductory science course in various iterations now called “JEG100: Introduction to Physical Geography and Earth Sciences” almost every year since I joined the Faculty in 2006. I love meeting the first-year students and getting to share in some way in their excitement. This course gives me the opportunity to choose the “best of”, the most exciting and engaging topics across the breadth of the geosciences and it is gratifying to see these students’ enthusiasm. Their fresh eyes have brought me new insights into these topics and their relevance.


Most interesting field research location?

I have had the great privilege of working in Northern Canada including Nunavut, NWT and Northern Ontario for many years. If I had to pick one, I would highlight the Hudson and James Bay Lowlands (Na Taski Nan in Omushkego Cree). 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.


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 towards the 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 UN 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 serves as a great framework for thinking about the role of humanity in Earth systems.