To hear Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski talk about pollen grains is to marvel at a realm unknown to the vast majority of the world. The Finnish-born director of the School of Art and Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens is a dynamic force, the kind of woman who pulls you into her fascination with her.
“Pollen grains are fantastic,” she says, sitting across from me in her office. She is stylish and energetic, wearing a smattering of chunky silver jewelry and a pixie cut. “You look at them once in the microscope and then you sit there for years.”
The walls are painted a warm shade of pink and blanketed in books and botanical art of all kinds. Spare surfaces are covered in an orderly arrangement of plant specimens, from acorns to seedpods to dried leaves still pigmented a vibrant green. It’s the kind of space that invites you to stay a while— to indulge your childlike curiosity, to hold a piece of the earth gently in your hand and turn it over and over, wondering at its strange origins.
Mervi, too, is a case to wonder at. She has two doctoral degrees, a Ph.D. in Quaternary Biology from the University of Lund and a D.Sc. in Palynology from the University of Stockholm, both in Sweden. She has researched and taught at universities all over the world. She has raised a daughter. She gets to work at 5 am on most days and leaves around 7 pm.
When I ask her about the origins of her lifelong dedication to biology, she laughs.
“If my mother were here, she would tell you everything,” she says of her childhood in Finland. “I was dissecting butterflies and pulling wings apart and looking at the eggs when I was a kid. I was completely hopeless. There was no question ever. I never had any problem selecting a profession.”
During her first visit to Colorado in 2002, the Denver Art Museum displayed a botanical art exhibit from the collections of Shirley Sherwood, the most prolific botanical art collector in the world. Mervi was working at UC Berkeley, where her family had relocated to support her. This time, it was her turn to relocate for her husband’s job.
“I saw the art exhibit and I learned about the program here at the Gardens,” she says, smiling. “That was my condition to my husband: I’m coming with you to Colorado if I can join that program.”
Since then, she has transformed the Botanical Illustration Program into a certificate program with demanding requirements akin to a university fine art degree. In 2013, she began a traveling sketchbook amongst students at the school as a fundraiser for the program. The Kickstarter raised $28,097, well over their goal of $20,000.
Mervi loves botanical illustration for its integration of art and scientific study. While photography has improved to become an invaluable research tool, she says there’s still nothing like a finely-tuned botanical illustration.
“Every plant is so beautiful,” she says, pointing to her unlikely fondness for chicory. “It’s an invasive plant in Colorado, but the flower is sky blue and when it’s blooming the anthers are deep blue.”
The botanical illustrator seems optimistic about the presence of women in sciences overall, having worked recently with a variety of medical professionals through her airborne pollen studies.
“I think it has been fifty-fifty in recent years,” she says. “There might be more men but nowadays it’s hard to say. And nobody gets paid much [in the sciences]. But in the illustration business, there are certainly more women.”
Statistics, however, are slightly less comforting. While gender wage gap is less significant in STEM professions, according to a March 2014 report by Million Women Mentors, out of 100 female undergraduates, only 12 women graduate with STEM degrees and only 3 are still working in related careers 10 years after graduation.
“I’ve always been kind of living in the man’s world,” says Mervi. “But I know that I can do it as well and better than the men, and that’s enough for me.”
Mervi says she’ll never be out there touting feminism with a flag, but she thinks women can do anything if they just try.
“You just need to be honest, mostly for yourself,” she says. “Be ready to accept that although you can do anything, you cannot do everything.”
Before I leave Mervi’s office, she shows me a variety of her specimens, speaking frankly about her fascination with seeds and pollen.
“Pollen grains are plants’ fingerprints which means that every species has a different kind of beautifully ornamented pollen grain,” she says. “Seeds are the same way. Seedpods themselves are an architectural structure. It is so fascinating, the beauty and functionality of them.”
It occurs to me that she might as well be talking about women. I walk away from the Gardens, down 11th Ave into Cheesman Park feeling satisfied knowing that Mervi’s particular fingerprint has touched our sun-soaked city.