Student Profile: Makena Wong

Photo of the Port of Redwood City from the Belmont hills.

Port of Redwood City from the Belmont hills in San Mateo County.

Networking at the Bill Lane Center

A connection made through the Bill Lane Center helped Makena Wong, MS ’20, land a job in environmental planning after graduation.

By Alex Kekauoha

While enrolled at Santa Clara University (SCU) for her undergraduate studies, Makena Wong traveled to Kolkata, India and witnessed firsthand the threat of sea level rise on the Sundarbans Forest, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world.

Headshot of BLC alumna, Makena Wong
Photo courtesy of Makena Wong

“That trip was completely jarring and eye-opening because I was in a place that I realized wasn’t going to exist in about ten years,” Wong said. The trip also helped her recognize just how important environmental work really is. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is vital and it has to be what I do for the rest of my life.”

In 2017, Wong earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from SCU and the following year enrolled at Stanford to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her graduate studies broadened her understanding of modern climate challenges and explored the intersection of environmental engineering and policy.

“The reason Stanford attracted me was because it very much celebrates the interdisciplinary nature of that kind of work,” Wong said. “And the Bill Lane Center is a part of that.”

Today, Wong works on engineering and policy projects that address sea level rise in San Mateo County, a role she credits the Bill Lane Center (BLC) with helping her land.

Making connections

During her first semester at Stanford, Wong enrolled in the BLC’s environmental governance class on sea level rise taught by Bruce Cain, professor of political science and director of the BLC, and Len Ortolano, professor of civil engineering. The course explored civil engineering concepts associated with climate adaptation and their policy implications, then challenged students to consider long-term solutions.

“I’d never had a class like that,” Wong said. “Starting my time at Stanford with that kind of interdisciplinary mindset was exactly what I needed.”

In the class, students worked on projects analyzing climate challenges in locations around the world, then considered ways that governments could adapt to changing climates. Wong’s project focused on the ways that New York City was affected by heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, the largest and most destructive Atlantic storm in 2012 that caused more than 200 deaths and tens of billions of dollars in damages.

The course included guest speakers. Among them was Len Materman who, at the time, was executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority and working on projects related to sea level rise and ecosystem restoration. Inspired by his presentation on protecting East Palo Alto’s shoreline, Wong made sure to connect with him outside of the classroom. When he later became CEO of OneShoreline – a government agency that addresses flooding, sea level rise and coastal erosion in San Mateo County – she reached out.

“I was like, ‘If you’re looking for staff, let me know!’” Wong recalled. “I heard from him later on and he said he wanted to bring me on.”

Shortly after graduating from Stanford in the spring of 2020, Wong joined OneShoreline as an associate project manager. Today, she works on engineering projects, such as developing protections for Millbrae and Burlingame’s Bay shoreline that will connect to sea level rise protection currently planned for San Francisco International Airport’s runways, which are under threat from rising water levels. She is also developing environmental policy solutions, such as helping design future zoning ordinances for cities on the Bay shoreline that incorporate sea level rise into their zoning standards.

“Working for a local government agency solely focused on the issue of climate adaptation, in a county that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, is exactly the kind of work that I came to Stanford to do,” Wong said.

In addition to the Sea Level Rise class, Wong also took an Urban Systems Analysis Project class in which she produced a spatial data analysis that assessed the impacts of sea level rise on San Francisco Peninsula residents’ access to local amenities, as well as their work commutes. Impressed with her work, Ortolano, who taught the class, later selected her as a teaching assistant.

“After seeing what Makena was capable of doing, it was an easy decision to select her as a TA in my course on Adaptation to Sea Level Rise and Extreme Weather Events,” Ortolano said. “Makena made teaching the course easy for me and the students gave her rave reviews.”

As she looks back on her time at Stanford, Wong encourages students interested in environmental issues to consider taking the BLC’s Sea Level Rise course. She also stressed the importance of connecting with mentors and classmates.

“I met really amazing people in that class and those relationships continue today,” she said.