Finding Natural Solutions to Protect Coastal Communities

Louiza Wise kayaks near Emerald Tutu floating wetlands off the East Boston Coast.

Louiza Wise, E’21, environmental engineering, is passionate about tackling climate change threats with nature-based solutions. Her experiential education and research experience, along with work at the NSF-funded Emerald Tutu project, has prepared her for graduate school and the next step in her career.

When Louiza Wise, E’21, environmental engineering, was 10-years old, she took her first airplane trip, traveling from Chicago to Cleveland, with a cousin. She recalls the awe they both felt looking down at the Great Lakes, a seemingly endless expanse of water. That fascination with water has never really left her.

Wise arrived at Northeastern with plans to major in environmental engineering and was soon engaged in research that focused on wetlands in a lab setting.

“We would make synthetic wastewater and filter it through the wetlands to measure the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus from the water,’’ Wise says. “It got me interested in how we can use natural systems to make improvements.”

In addition to research work, Wise completed three co-ops while an undergraduate, and each one helped her develop a deeper understanding of climate challenges and viable solutions. She worked at Barletta Heavy Division on her first co-op in its construction contracting group, which helped her understand the operations and maintenance of a wastewater treatment plant. On her second co-op, she worked at Weston & Sampson, Inc., an environmental engineering consulting firm, where she developed skills in writing environmental compliance reports.

But it was her third co-op at Floating Island International, which creates floating wetland mats with recycled materials, that helped her identify the path she wanted to take. “They were constructing floating wetlands to improve water quality and the work was aligned with where I wanted to end up.”

In her senior year, she attended a lecture by Julia Hopkins, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, on the Emerald Tutu project. Hopkins is the scientific lead of the NSF-SBIR funded project, which designs and tests networks of artificial floating wetlands to attenuate storm wave energy in urban waterways. As Hopkins spoke about building wetland mats from natural materials like coconut fiber and seagrass, Wise decided she wanted to work there. Soon after, she reached out to inquire about a job and was hired.

Initially working as a summer intern, and then full time after graduating, Wise did a range of jobs and tasks. She assisted in the design and construction of wetland prototypes, conducted experiments to measure the impact of different mat configurations on nutrient cycling, and recorded and analyzed data on the prototype’s performance.

“We were learning about how they perform in the water and how they react to storms and, so far, they have upheld their shape and performed as we expected,” Wise says.

She took on more responsibility over time, assisting in grant writing and working with community members in East Boston, where the first test units had been installed in the water. She assisted Emerald Tutu partner Eastie Farm, which runs the Climate Corps Program, a paid fellowship for students from age 15 to 22, by helping train fellows on climate-friendly job skills. She also assisted in monthly open houses with community members to provide information about the Emerald Tutu’s work and gather feedback.

The experience has been inspirational to Wise and reinforced her desire to make an impact using natural resources to address climate change. “We are faced with climate crisis, flooding, and damage to communities and infrastructures,” she says. “That’s what is driving me to want to be involved in this space.”

Recently, Wise decided to expand her research focus and will be heading west in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in coastal engineering at Oregon State University. She is looking forward to conducting research on the West Coast, which is has a steeper continental shelf and different wave climate than its eastern counterpart and will present new challenges.

Wise expects to take many lessons from her Emerald Tutu experience to graduate school. Initially, her research will focus on the effectiveness of using engineered cobble berms as a way to protect the coastline.

“Eventually, I hope to use my knowledge and experience to help cities and towns adopt inexpensive, nature-based solutions to emerging threats from climate change,” Wise says.

Related Faculty: Julia Hopkins

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering