Beth Tomlinson: Freshwater tween researcher grows up to be water advocate

Beth Tomlinson in Namibia, Africa while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Living abroad for two years in one of the oldest deserts in the world grounded Beth Tomlinson in a deep appreciation for water quality and access. Not just in Namibia, Africa where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer but also at home in Minnesota  ̶  and more locally in Minneapolis, where she grew up and now lives.

Her interest in water issues can be traced back even further, to a summer in the late 1980s when, as a 12-year-old, she volunteered with Freshwater  ̶  known then as the Gray Freshwater Biological Institute. During her summer break from school she mentioned to her mother that she wanted to spend her time volunteering with an organization focused on environmental conservation. Having grown up camping and fishing in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada, and like most Minnesotans, water quality was important to her.  She and her mom reached out to the Institute to ask about potential summer opportunities and were invited to the office for a visit, where she found a welcoming staff and an office full of natural daylight.

Beth was very excited with her assignment to help on Freshwater’s Eurasian milfoil research work in Twin Cities lakes. She spent the summer biking around to her Minneapolis neighborhood lakes and taking daily temperature readings. She measured a specific distance on a piece of string, tied it to her thermometer, and dropped it into the water for temperature readings, then recorded the values in her ‘science journal’.

Her time volunteering with Freshwater provided Beth with dedicated time spent outdoors – observing the changes in her environment, meeting neighbors, and having an opportunity to talk about her ‘work’ with Freshwater. “Even though my task was child-sized,” she said, “it filled me with a sense of accomplishment, participation, and validation that others not only agreed with my values, but made careers focused on them.”

In the end, Beth’s interests and abilities led her toward physics and a degree in mechanical engineering.  However, conservation is still the focus of her career.

Beth is a senior mechanical engineer and facilities sustainability and resilience leader with TKDA, an architecture, engineering, and planning firm headquartered in Saint Paul. As a professional engineer, she designs sustainable (green) buildings and provides energy and water audits to identify conservation opportunities for public and private clients.  Her designs include rainwater reuse, efficient use of natural resources, reduced impervious paving, and improved access to the natural environment (such as making the best use of natural light in building design).

While relocating back to Minneapolis after her time in Africa, Beth chose to live close to the Mississippi River. Her family often hikes along the bluffs and their springer spaniel enjoys dock diving and the Mississippi river dog park. Her work with Freshwater was integral to that connection with water.

“Freshwater’s willingness to share a real project opportunity with an inexperienced ‘city kid’ encouraged my interests in science, community engagement, and environmental conservation,” she said. “Their kindness was an example of service leadership that I will never forget.”

And she still has that thermometer!

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