The ecologist Marko Haapakoski has worked as the intendant of Ähtäri Zoo since March 2021. He holds a PhD and is a docent of ecology and evolutionary biology as well as the mammal expert for the nature column in the newspaper Keskisuomalainen. In Ähtäri, he is specialised in the species protection as well as in the zoo’s educational activities.

As a recent secondary school graduate from Alavieska, Marko Haapakoski was interested in biology, and he found the curriculum at the Faculty of Mathematics and Science at the University of Jyväskylä especially intriguing. However, after failing to get in through the entrance examination on his first try, he spent the following year doing his military service and pursuing aircraft mechanic studies.

His second attempt earned him a study place at the university, and so Haapakoski moved to Jyväskylä and started studying biology. He knew no one in the city beforehand but made plenty of friends and acquaintances alongside his studies, together with many great memories from the study years.

“In particular, in the fieldwork courses at the Konnevesi Research Station we developed a strong team spirit. Out in the field, the groups of friends really bonded together. Everybody was encouraging and supporting each other.”

Later, when working at the University, Haapakoski often got a chance to visit the familiar surroundings of Konnevesi. “As a teacher, I saw the same things from another side, unlike as a student,” Haapakoski says.

The networks he formed during his study years are now used frequently.

“You don’t necessarily realise you are building up such capital while studying. For example, last week we were tagging the birds of Ähtäri Zoo. I called a former fellow student and asked where we could find suitably sized bands for the birds and how can you tell what the right size for each bird is. The information and help were readily available!”

Haapakoski studied various areas of biology. He collected credits from, among others, behavioral ecology, genetics, nature conservation biology, and research on scent chemical communication.

“From the career point of view, students are often encouraged to specialize in a given area, but a broad-based approach and well-rounded competence sometimes yield surprising benefits in working life. I, for instance, suddenly found myself working in a zoo, where I need all the skills and knowledge I got during my studies.”

Haapakoski warmly recommends a broad-based approach for others as well. “If I were starting my studies again, I would choose some minor subjects from different departments and faculties as well.”

As an intendant, Haapakoski has noticed that in this work new things are learned largely by doing. “As a researcher, I could sometimes spend time for learning new things by reading literature, for instance. Now the mode of working is different and new things are learned through practical activities. Most recently, I have been learning to use an animal database, which is used by many zoos and universities. You enter all the animal data, and through the database you can share and search for information internationally. Yesterday, I entered our data on the Finnish forest reindeer in Ähtäri.

“Here at the zoo, I have learned plenty of new things that I didn’t earlier even imagine to ever be of use for me,” Haapakoski says.

“Continuous learning does not always mean new degrees, but it can be about gaining and updating the skills and knowledge you need at work, about keeping up with development in general.”

One of Haapakoski’s most memorable experiences from his time at university is from the beginning of his postgraduate studies, when he was going to attend a congress on mammal science. At that time, he had just finished his manuscript for a doctoral dissertation on habitat fragmentation affecting the behaviour of bank voles and submitted it for publication in the Population Ecology series. Haapakoski travelled to Japan.

“I had got my own poster presentation in the congress. Suddenly the editor-in-chief of the series, Professor Takashi, came to me and said, ‘Marko, we need to talk’. At lunch the next day, we went through my entire manuscript. Professor Takashi had made marked it up in English and Japanese.”

Professor Takashi advised Haapakoski on the necessary revisions and considered that once those were done, the young doctoral researcher would get his manuscript approved. “It is unbelievable that this person arranges a congress for a thousand people and then takes the first manuscript of a beginning postgraduate and spends his lunchtime going through it with me. It was indeed an honour and a really great start for my dissertation career.” The roots of Haapakoski’s expertise in mammals is in those times and events.

“Speaking of JYU alumni,” Haapakoski says, “we also have another graduate of JYU here at Ähtäri, Selma Närkki, who is acting as the environmental educator of the zoo. At the beginning of the next year, we will launch a nature school and a nature club, which will have annually changing themes. People can participate in these several years in row. Environmental education is part of the zoo’s statutory duties.”

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