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Student Profile: Nick Mascarello

Photo courtesy of Nick Mascarello, right.

How the BLC helped shape an environmental professional

Stanford alumnus Nick Mascarello shares how the Bill Lane Center for the American West helped broaden his understanding of what a career in the environmental sciences can be.

By Alex Kekauoha

Growing up in the scenic coastal town of Monterey, California, Nick Mascarello, B.S. ‘18, M.S. ’19, developed a deep appreciation for the natural world at an early age, frequently taking advantage of the opportunities his hometown had to offer, such as camping, enjoying the beach, and visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“All of these amazing experiences really put me on the path of wanting a career that was scientific and getting out there and fighting for conservation,” Mascarello said.

When he enrolled at Stanford in 2014, selecting a major (earth systems) wasn’t difficult. But as he wrapped up his undergraduate studies and began to narrow in on a more specific career path, he hit a wall. He’d considered pursuing a PhD and becoming a full-fledged scientist, but eventually realized that wasn’t the path for him.

Mascarello said that an internship through the Bill Lane Center for the American West showed him that environmental careers are incredibly diverse and helped set him on his current trajectory in environmental planning and policy.  

“It really redefined my sense of what an environmental professional could be,” he said.

Working “Out West”

The Bill Lane Center for the American West provides a plethora of academic and professional opportunities that are experiential, as well as interdisciplinary – touching areas such as history, public policy and the physical sciences. It’s these broad opportunities that often attract students like Mascarello to the BLC’s programs.

Immediately after completing his bachelor’s degree in 2018 – and just before beginning a master’s focused on environmental policy at Stanford – Mascarello landed a BLC West Internship with the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI).

“It seemed like a really great opportunity to bridge both my interests in the natural sciences and ecosystems with the management and policy aspects that I was looking to dig into a bit more in my masters,” he said.

As an intern, Mascarello worked with SFEI’s Resilient Landscape team, which researches the historical functions and appearances of Bay Area ecosystems that no longer reflect their past forms due to human activities, such as development.

Mascarello worked on numerous projects, including one that studied the Crystal Springs reservoirs in the hills of the San Francisco Peninsula. Using photographs of the area taken in the early 1900s, Mascarello helped SFEI’s researchers analyze how the areas have changed over time.

“I was given a bunch of historical photos, did my best to pinpoint the location where they were likely taken, and then I got to go into the field with some of the staff from SFEI and rephotograph those same places today so that we could have nice side-by-side images to compare the change that’s occurred,” he explained.

The information gathered from research like this is used to inform future environmental management strategies – such as habitat restoration and invasive species removal – implemented by regulators. Uncovering an ecosystem’s past provides land managers a target to aim for in the future, which can ultimately enhance the resilience of the intact habitat that remains today.

“The work that I did with the Institute really showed me that there was an entirely different realm of professional work that touched on environmentalism and research and climate change and all these things that I was interested in, that I was capable of contributing to,” Mascarello said, noting the stellar mentorship he received from staff at SFEI. “It ended up being a phenomenal internship experience.”

Launching a career

After completing his internship, Mascarello began his graduate studies, which focused on the policy and management side of ecology and conservation. This included a Bill Lane Center environmental governance class on sea level rise – taught by professors Leonard Ortolano and Bruce Cain – that explored how governments can adapt to climate change in an equitable and effective way.

“The projects Nick did for the class were outstanding, particularly his work on how communities in coastal Virginia were adapting to sea level rise,” Ortolano said.

After completing his master’s degree in 2019, Mascarello remained active with the BLC and professors Ortolano and Cain.

“When Bruce and I decided to focus the second version of the class on wildfires, we asked for Nick’s help,” said Ortolano. “He did a masterful job in structuring class assignments in a way that would allow results to be valuable to local governments and NGOs.”

After leaving Stanford, Mascarello briefly worked for an environmental consulting firm, before landing his current position as an environmental planner with Valley Water, the government agency responsible for water supply management, flood protection and stewardship of aquatic habitats in Santa Clara County. He is part of a team tasked with planning and policy. More specifically, he helps engineers and scientists navigate California’s complex environmental regulatory landscape, and is an author of the agency’s forthcoming climate change action plan, which will guide its climate mitigation and adaptation strategies moving forward.

Although just two months into the job (and working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Mascarello said he is enjoying the role and credits his experiences with the BLC for helping build a foundation for a career in his field.

Mascarello said that his experience with the interdisciplinary nature of the BLC played a role in his professional aspirations. He noted that he always appreciated how the BLC’s uniquely collaborative spirit brought together faculty and students from different academic backgrounds to think deeply about the west’s contemporary challenges. In many ways, Mascarello has found that working in planning and government requires a similar interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. 

“The programs and classes I was able to take through the BLC were hugely influential in putting me on the path that I have now pursued,” he said.