Nature blog

Anna-Helena Purre: “I had to put up with vipers, grass-snakes, ticks, mosquitoes and the ever-changing weather while writing my dissertation”

Doctoral student from the School of Natural Sciences and Health Anna-Helena Purre defended her ecological doctoral thesis in May this year: Carbon dioxide dynamics and recovery of vegetation on restored peatlands. We spoke to Anna-Helena about her dissertation topic and how she got on with the writing process.

anna-helena purre

How did you come up with this topic during your studies?

In high school, I wrote a paper about marshes, which is probably where it all started. Later, when I started university, I went to Aegna island one summer with a course mate to collect some data for a project about seaside landscapes carried out by the Institute of Ecology, and although the other student ended up writing their seminar and Bachelor’s paper about the same topic, beaches were not exactly my cup of tea. I was more interested in sediments, and since peat is basically settled plant mass, I was directed straight from Aegna island to peatlands. As the topic worked well for me and there were plenty of opportunities to develop it further, over time, a seminar paper turned into a doctoral thesis.

Writing a doctoral thesis is a huge task and definitely needs constant self-motivation. What’s your trick? How were you able to consistently work on it to achieve a successful final result?

What lead me to a successful finish with my thesis was definitely a combination of an exciting, somewhat practical topic, an interest in the field in general and a sense of duty, no doubt. Another aspect that played a big role was the fact that, although I wasn’t working at the university, my job was closely related to the topic of the dissertation. This enabled me to use the knowledge I gained in real-life situations. And the restrictions that came with COVID were the source of motivation for the final steps: all of my newly-found free time went towards writing the paper.

Please describe a memorable or funny event that happened while you were writing your thesis.

Writing the paper itself was more of a routine task. But during field work, there were plenty of funny and memorable moments. I had to put up with vipers, grass-snakes, ticks, mosquitoes and the ever-changing weather. In Northern Finland, packs of reindeer kept passing through the marshes and through my area of research. At first, it was quite intimidating to see nearly 100 pairs of antlers rushing loudly towards your area, but fortunately, reindeer are not hostile towards humans, so everything worked out in the end. In Estonia, there were two reasons why some observations were left unfinished: first, in some cases, in the time between two observations, the aluminium instruments had been stolen from the peatlands, and second, after the restoration of the peatland, water levels rose too high with heavy rain, making the areas inaccessible.
Conferences have also been very exciting and unforgettable. Especially because conference excursions play such an important part in natural sciences. From sleeping at a research station with three (orphan) bears in the forests of Siberia (luckily we stayed inside and the bears outside in cages) to attending marsh seminars in Finland where every excursion was accompanied by a surprise (champagne and live music beside a bog pond or a modern dance performance in the middle of a marsh).

How is your research going to change the world?

To be honest, I don’t think one doctoral thesis can usually change the world. But there is no doubt that we now have more extensive knowledge about the restoration of peatlands and the dynamics of carbon dioxide in Estonian peatlands. Although marsh research has always been at a high level, especially in Estonia, greenhouse gas emission in peatlands has been a topic the Baltic States have not been at the forefront of in recent years. The experience and knowledge presented in the thesis will be used in the restoration of peatlands and in the assessment of the restorations, which will help to optimise these activities.

How much are the voices of scientists and young researchers heard in our society?

It all depends on the field and the (young) researcher and their inner drive to use their voice. Everyone is entitled to make their own voice heard, but there are definitely some more relevant and popular topics where it is easier to be heard. So, I would say that the voices of scientists are heard in society. What people do with what they hear, however, is a completely different story.

What are the most important values and beliefs that you live by?

Well, first, I’m a maximalist in what I do. I think you should go all in, always do your best, so you don’t have to regret anything later and get to be proud of your achievements. Second, don’t throw out or disregard things that are working fine – this goes for both the environment and life in general.

Please tell us about a book that you recently read and would recommend to others. Why would you recommend it?

The books I have read most recently are all specialist literature, so I will instead recommend a book that once lead to environmental studies and is still an interesting and thought-provoking piece today. The book is called The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock. A second recommendation would be my office desk staple The Book of Estonian Plants by Toomas Kukk. This is a great way to learn about Estonian vegetation and get started with identifying plants, especially for non-botanists who might otherwise find identification guides intimidating.