It is not at all uncommon for students to arrive at college with several passions that they want to pursue academically. That was the case for Colette Brandt ’09, who arrived at Gustavus Adolphus College in the fall of 2005, took full advantage of the liberal arts experience, and is now living her dream as a successful environmental scientist in Alaska.
“I grew up in the Midwest with access to fields, creeks, and forests and spent plenty of time fishing, catching tadpoles, and looking under logs,” Brandt said. “I’ve always had a concern for the environment, an interest in several areas of science, I love problem solving, and enjoy the outdoors. I wanted a career in which I could incorporate everything I love to do as well as make a difference.”
And making a difference she is. Brandt, who is originally from Prescott, Wisconsin, is working as an environmental scientist and geographic information systems specialist for Restoration Science and Engineering in Anchorage, Alaska. Recently, Brandt had the opportunity to work on the Eva Creek Wind Energy Project. The $93 million project was constructed in the northern foothills of the Alaska Range near the town of Healy, which lies between the larger cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks in Southeast Alaska. It involves 12 wind turbines that each stand 415 feet tall and blades that create a circle with a diameter of 304 feet. Brandt acted as environmental compliance inspector and permitting agent on the project, which can generate up to 24.6 megawatts of clean, renewable energy.
“I prepared applications for several state and federal permits for this project including a land lease, two road easements, and a material sale permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Mining, Land and Water; and a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE),” Brandt said. “I also assisted in the development of the USACE’s environmental assessment by researching and documenting the existing affected environment, analyzing and calculating all impacts to wetlands under each of the project alternatives, and preparing a detailed project description.”
Brandt also conducted research at the State of Alaska’s Office of History and Archaeology as part of the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 consultation, produced project specific constraints maps, detailed project area maps including wetland impacts, and also conducted a stormwater pollution prevention plan and permit compliance inspections during the construction phase of the wind farm. The first power from the Eva Creek Wind Project came into the grid on October 24, 2012.
During the summer field season, Brandt says that she typically spends time outdoors investigating wetlands, performing groundwater monitoring and sampling, and conducting site-specific research on construction projects and safety and environmental permit compliance. In the winter months she can be found in the office developing monitoring reports, work plans, permits for projects, reclamation plans, and construction specifications for upcoming projects.
“I occasionally have to pinch myself that someone is willing to pay me to wander around the mountains,” Brandt said.
There is no question that Brandt is doing work she loves, and that is the result of the time and work she put in during four years at Gustavus and two years at Alaska Pacific University where she earned her Master of Science degree in Environmental Science conducting juvenile salmon population estimates and movement modeling.
“I originally began my four years at Gustavus thinking I was going to major in biology and go into dentistry or pre-med, but then I fell in love with my math classes and went the direction of a math major instead,” Brandt said. “I decided to take Conservation Biology from Professor Cindy Johnson as an elective during the fall semester of my junior year and that rekindled my love for the natural sciences. That’s when I decided I could do both math and environmental studies.”
After taking Conservation Biology, Brandt was presented an opportunity to work with fellow Gustavus students on Professor Johnson’s research of the fern Genus Botrychium. The experience left a lasting impact on Brandt.
“Professor Johnson was a kind, generous, and intellectually challenging advisor and mentor who helped guide me and provided the necessary support for me to gain confidence in myself as a woman, researcher, and writer,” Brandt said. “Working and studying Botrychium with Cindy and the other research students was one of the greatest experiences I had at Gustavus.”
“Colette was a dynamo in conservation biology class, full of energy and curiosity. She always had a smile, was easy to engage and ready to tackle any problem,” Johnson said. “After I had her in class, I knew she was exactly the student I needed in my laboratory to work on moonworts (Botrychium), particularly a project that required a student with mathematics skills. Thanks to her mathematical skills we made significant progress on a complicated data set. Her enthusiasm for moonworts and the outdoors was infectious”
Biology instructor Kiki Harbitz also played an important role in guiding Brandt down the career path she eventually chose.
“Kiki was my biology lab instructor the first semester of my freshman year. She is a phenomenal person and great teacher,” Brandt said. “Outside of the classroom she gave me guidance and advice on a personal and professional level that has been instrumental in my growth as a person and student. I think I was fortunate to have some amazing professors while at Gustavus. Every professor I had offered guidance, support and a wealth of knowledge I am so appreciative to have gained.”
Brandt is also thankful for the instruction she received in mathematics courses such as Mathematical Model Building and Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics I and II. She said she also relished the opportunity to take interesting classes such as the History of the Ottoman Empire from the History Department and the History of Finland from the Scandinavian Studies Department.
“I was lucky enough to go to Gustavus and obtain a diverse and well-rounded education,” Brandt said. “Although math and natural sciences are my main interests, I realize that this core knowledge needs to be complemented by a varied liberal arts curriculum, because environmental problems require holistic, “big picture” solutions that cross disciplines. The education at Gustavus taught me to be able to communicate with and understand other specialties, as well as the general public.”
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