Caribbean bound: Alumna earns prestigious fellowship
for Ph.D. work
April 29, 2010 By Abby Malik
volunteering at an orphanage and school, has been named a 2010
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
Lillian Tuttle with Centre president John Roush
Lillian Tuttle ’08 admits to being a little surprised upon finding out she was named a 2010 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. At the time of gathering materials for her application (in November 2009), she was in Africa, tutoring students in an orphanage.
“I was traveling with my boyfriend, Daniel Holder ’09, and our friend Brian Pate ’09 in rural Kenya,” Tuttle says. “We volunteered at an orphanage and school for three months, tutoring eighth graders in math, science and English in preparation for their high school entrance exams. I managed to write three essays while I was there and coordinate my references, and so the fact that I got the fellowship really baffles me.”
It really shouldn’t.
In 2008, Tuttle, a biology major, was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to study marine ecology in France at the Université Montpellier II. She was one of an impressive six Centre students to be named a Fulbright recipient that year. It only seems fitting that the NSF would recognize her ability and marine ecology research worthy of such a substantial fellowship: Each year, Tuttle will receive a $30,000 living stipend and an additional $10,500 for tuition and fees for her graduate-level study, renewable for three years.
“Personally, getting the grant kind of threw a wrench into my plans, in a good way,” Tuttle explains. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t dependent on offers being made to me by schools. As long as I’d been accepted into a graduate program, I could use the NSF Fellowship anywhere I wanted. As a result, I had to rethink my plans.”
Tuttle will begin her Ph.D. work at Oregon State University this fall. There, her research will focus on a current hot topic: the recent invasion of Indo-Pacific lionfish into the Atlantic-Caribbean. Lionfish were introduced in the 1990’s as a result of the aquarium trade and have since expanded their territory and taken a serious toll on the balance of coral reef ecosystems, Tuttle explains. She will work in the lab of coral reef ecologist Dr. Mark Hixon and will also collaborate with her mentor and former Centre biology professor, Dr. Paul Sikkel.
“Specifically, I’ll be looking at ecological mechanisms that have contributed to the success of lionfish in their invaded territory, in particular, interactions with the local parasite and predator communities. I’m really looking forward to conducting my Ph.D. research in the Caribbean!” Tuttle says.
Ultimately, her career goal is to become an evolutionary ecology biologist, teaching at a university and conducting research simultaneously.
As a Fulbright Scholar in France, Tuttle’s research focused on how changes in environmental salinity (salt content level) affect the immunity and health of a tilapia fish species used in the aquaculture industry.
“The particular species that I was studying was remarkable because it could survive changes from freshwater to water with more than four times the salt content of seawater,” Tuttle says. “Our results found that changes in salinity did decrease the immune capabilities of these fish, but that amazingly, they were able to rebound after a few days of acclimatization.”
As for the Fulbright experience as whole, Tuttle says she loved working with a bright cohort of Fulbright students.
“There were some difficult times living alone in a foreign country, but I managed to travel and make friends from around the world.” Tuttle was rewarded for her months of hard work in France by the Fulbright Commission in France, which gave her the year’s only A.K. Peters Memorial Travel Grant that paid for an extra month to travel around France and complete her research.
Tuttle’s passion for marine ecology and French culture is a unique combination that she was allowed to nurture and grow as a student at Centre.
“I knew from the start that biology would be my major because of my interest in science and coral reef ecosystems,” Tuttle explains. “My mom gave me scuba-diving lessons for my sixteenth birthday, and I knew from the second I was surrounded by the Caribbean reefs that I wanted to do this for a living.”
When she arrived at Centre, she was surprised to find out she also had an interest in philosophy. She took several philosophy and religion classes, in addition to pursuing some French education by participating in the Centre-in-Strasbourg semester program with Dr. Lori Hartmann-Mahmud. After taking French courses in high school, she wanted to experience the language and culture first hand.
“I made some great friends that semester,” Tuttle says. “I even tried to become involved in the Strasbourg community by attending a couple services at the Synagogue de la Paix—I met a very kind rabbi who invited me into his home to spend Passover with him and his seven children. It was a really unique experience, and I won't forget it.
Interestingly, as a high school student, Tuttle, a native of Versailles, Ky., had her sights set on pursuing a marine biology degree at a college outside the state.
“I later decided that I wanted to stay closer to home and see if I could still manage to get a biology degree that would prepare me for a marine biology career,” she explains. “I chose Centre because it was the best school in Kentucky, and I’d enjoyed the campus during my time in the Governor’s Scholar Program.”
As it turned out, she says, there were two biology professors at Centre—Drs. Mike and Chris Barton—trained in marine or freshwater fish biology, and they were able to get Tuttle started on the right path—one that has led to, as Centre promises, extraordinary success.