Alea Tuttle Puts Academic and Field Experience in Ecosystem Restoration into Practice
Undergraduate alum profile
- By Shari Halik & Alea Tuttle
Alea Tuttle (ENSC ’08) is an environmental scientist at Wildlands Engineering in Charlotte, North Carolina. She uses much of the training she acquired from Rubenstein School courses, seasonal employment experiences, and her master’s program to assess and monitor potential and completed stream restoration projects.
She grew up not too far away in Chapel Hill, where a high school English teacher influenced her passion for both the environment and the arts. “He provided ample opportunity for experiencing the natural world through hiking trips and promoted emotional maturation and development through writing,” Alea shares. “His guidance helped me realize the importance of the natural world both through personal journaling and communication of our experiences among peers through more expository writing, theatrical performances, music, and poetry.”
Buoyed with curiosity and questions about the natural world, Alea chose to major in environmental sciences because she saw science as a fairly logical path to satisfy her drive for answers, and she had an interest in ecological design. The Rubenstein School’s core curriculum opened her eyes to a broad spectrum of career paths within natural resource management, but it wasn’t until she began taking more special topic courses that she found the best fit.
In Recovery and Restoration of Altered Ecosystems with Professors Mary Watzin and Bill Keeton, Alea discovered the need for scientifically based approaches to design and monitoring of restoration projects. “This course really propelled me in the direction of ecosystem restoration as a growing field where I felt I could make a positive impact and use all my skills,” affirms Alea.
In addition, Alea accumulated a variety of field experiences while at UVM. She worked with Research Professor Aleksandra Drizo and Technician Eamon Twohig at the Constructed Wetland Research Center at UVM’s Paul Miller Dairy Farm in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. There, she applied what she was learning from her courses in both the field and laboratory and conducted water quality analysis and hydrologic monitoring of dairy waste products and nutrient fate and transport.
She also had the incredible opportunity to work in Alaska on arctic stream research projects led by Professor Breck Bowden, principal investigator on several National Science Foundation Long Term Ecological Research programs, out of the Toolik Field Station and at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “It was an honor to work alongside so many world class scientists, technicians, journalists, and supporting staff. The views were pretty spectacular, as well!” she notes.
Alea also added a seasonal position with the Vermont State Water Quality Division to her repertoire. She worked in a stream biological assessment laboratory and an acid-impaired lake monitoring program.
During the off-season, Alea indulged her artistic, creative side. She sold antique and vintage items at Jamba’s Junktiques, “a curio-emporium of sorts,” in the OId North End of Burlington. “Most of the items in the shop were traded or scavenged by the irreplaceable community stalwart Phinneus Sonnin of Spielpalast Cabaret fame,” she explains. With this connection to the Burlington creative musical scene, she jumped at the chance to share her own musical talents with the Spielpalast band as a banjo, viola, and musical saw player before heading back south to work on a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte.
For her graduate research at UNC, she compared disturbed urban streams, characterized by unstable, eroding banks, with streams that have been restored by manipulating their geomorphology through Natural Channel Design. She measured nitrogen and phosphorus retention and processing capacity of the sediments of different stream types. She determined that external watershed-level factors play a large role in determining nutrient processing in each stream.
Currently, at Wildlands Engineering, Alea monitors stream restoration projects engineered and carried out by the company which is required to monitor stream geomorphology and vegetation survival for five years after a project is completed. They monitor hydrology for seven years if they restore or enhance a wetland. Alea also assesses conditions at potential project sites and delineates existing streams and wetlands. She puts into practice much of her prior training in traditional surveying and mapping, plant identification, and writing reports of her findings.
Alea is eager to begin a project recently awarded to Wildlands to restore the headwaters of Reedy Creek which includes 27,000 feet of incised streams and an additional 12,000 feet of intermittent streams in Reedy Creek Park, located in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The restoration will reduce sediment export and restore floodplain access, in addition to enhancing wetlands and providing storm water treatment ponds to treat parking lot and street run-off.
“I like that I get to spend so much time observing and assessing the natural world and that our mission as a company is to support conservation and enhance natural waters,” admits Alea. “It is fantastic to see a ‘mud-slide ditch for cattle’ transformed into a fully functioning stream complete with gravel and cobble riffles, deep pools with root-wad habitat, and thickly vegetated riparian buffer within a period of a few years.”
Alea lives in the NoDa district, the historic arts and entertainment area of Charlotte, where she can be found at establishments in the evening playing banjo and singing. To mix it up, she sometimes plays the singing saw, viola, or violin. She shares a bungalow with her partner, who is also in the music industry, and his nephew, as well as a puppy and several stray cats. Her next big step is to find some land to purchase and to design her own home.