As a child, Emily Saarinen was fascinated by caterpillars and other small creatures.
“Little people can see things that adults overlook,” she reflects. That respect for nature rooted in her childhood has grown to inspire her work today. Now an assistant professor of biology in the Department of Natural Sciences at the UM-Dearborn campus, Saarinen’s appreciation for the small things in nature impassion her research and work in the classroom.
After receiving her Ph.D., Saarinen conducted post-doctoral research with the Environmental Protection Agency while teaching ecology at Oregon State University. “I realized I really loved teaching, but I would never want to let go of my research,” she says. The position at UM-Dearborn seemed the perfect next step. “When this job came up, it was a perfect mixture of teaching and the ability to conduct research. It was really a win-win.”
Saarinen teaches undergraduate ecology and environmental science lectures and their subsequent labs, as well as applied ecology in the environmental science master’s program.
It is in her research where Saarinen observes nature’s smaller organisms. With her background in entomology, she primarily studies Michigan endangered butterflies, such as the Poweshiek Skipperling, a butterfly native to the Midwest that has a high risk for extinction. “We’re trying to figure out why populations are lost from some areas and what we can do to retain those that remain,” Saarinen says.
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Saarinen partners with the U-M DNA Sequencing Core in Ann Arbor, working with new techniques to assess genetic diversity in butterfly populations. “I can use the million-dollar machines developed for evaluating the human genome to help figure out what is happening with the butterflies in a genetic sense, so that’s a really neat collaboration,” she says. She also conducts research through the U-M Water Center, focusing on fish diversity in the Rouge River and working with ecology and geology students to characterize the river and how it can be improved. “It’s another case of figuring out what is going on in the environment right around us, and using science to help inform management decisions.”
Aside from collaborating with the Core and Water Center, Saarinen also works with local zoos to study and help restore butterfly populations. “They’ve been great in getting a message of conservation and biodiversity to the public,” Saarinen says. The zoos, including Detroit and Toledo and Minnesota, do the captive breeding of endangered butterflies, displaying them to the public and releasing them into restored habitats once their numbers are healthy. Saarinen and her team then track whether the populations are growing. “It’s a great way for people to see endangered species that they wouldn’t be able to in the wild, and have a personal connection with them too.”
Q & A
What can’t you live without?
What is your favorite spot near campus?
I try to spend a lot of time in our UM-Dearborn Campus Natural Area. It is beautiful year-round, but when the fall leaves change color they are reflected in the lake and create a magical sight.
What inspires you?
The beauty and mystery in small, easily overlooked parts of nature.
What are you currently reading?
“Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World” by Joel Salatin. It is a fantastic book by a 4th-generation farmer and advocate of local food systems.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
I have been fortunate to have a wonderful set of mentors during graduate school at the University of Florida. Dr. Jaqueline Miller helped me develop my interest in entomology and Dr. Jaret Daniels was a great doctoral adviser that encouraged me to pursue my interests in conservation and integrate genetics. I will always be grateful to have been originally mentored by Dr. Tom Emmel, who probably had countless worries as I traveled through Southeast Asia in search of rare butterflies. All three of them encouraged me to follow my passion and to take risks.