Thursday, September 17, 2015

SNRE profiles: Horticulturist finds research home at UAF

Horticulture Professor Meriam Karlsson and Research Technician Cameron Willingham show corn harvested at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm in 2012.
Meriam Karlsson grew up on a small dairy farm in southern Sweden, between Stockholm and  Malmö. Her family grew hay, barley and oats for a herd of 20 to 30 cows.

Agriculture seemed like the logical career path to her, but she was more interested in plants than animals, so she studied horticulture at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and then at Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s and a doctorate in horticulture. She studied the effects of temperature and light on plants, particularly flowering plants produced in greenhouses.

Since there were no job opportunities in Sweden when she graduated, Karlsson accepted a job at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1988 to research greenhouse production and to teach. The extreme day lengths and short field seasons in Alaska intrigued her, she said, and they still do.

The horticulture professor’s current research centers on high tunnels, greenhouse and controlled environment production, controlled environment technology and resource management in commercial greenhouses. She is studying the use of LED lights, which are less expensive to use but provide a different quality of light in greenhouses than the traditional sodium lights.

“Sometimes an LED doesn’t give you as much or the right type of light,” she said.  She is developing guidelines for LED lights that greenhouse operators can use.
Her office is a few steps down the hall from the new greenhouse in the Arctic Health Research Building. She monitors plants there on a regular basis year-round. The greenhouse is a little bare this time of year, but there are poinsettia plants and red and green peppers growing on 8-foot trellises, which are part of a research project. The poinsettias are used in a basic plant class to show the effect of lighting. 

Karlsson believes there is a need for more agricultural research in Alaska, including research on high tunnels, which are becoming very popular in Alaska, particularly on the Kenai Peninsula. One hundred applications are pending there for the Natural Resources and Conservation Service cost-share high tunnel program. High tunnels are used differently in Alaska than in other locations, she notes. Alaskans use them during the growing season to provide greater heat, not just simply to extend the season, she said.

In additional to serving as the department chair for the SNRE agricultural and horticultural group, which includes academic, research and extension programs, Karlsson is teaching NRM 211, Applied Plant Science, and is team teaching Sustainable Agriculture with Professors Milan Shipka and Mingchu Zhang. In the spring, she teaches Greenhouse Management, which is a lot more complicated than many students believe, she said. “It’s not just putting in plants and walking away.” She also works as an academic advisor for undergraduate students in natural resources management and in the UAF Academic Advising Center. 

She thinks often of her homeland, she says, where two sisters and a brother still live.

 “I miss Sweden,” she said. “ I really do.”

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