Women at work – Maya Wong: Trading a backpack for a hard hat

Washington University women are rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done on the East End construction site in a variety of ways, from engineering to project managing to communications. Here’s another in a series spotlighting women students, staff and alumni who are contributing to the transformation.

This month, Maya Wong, one of Washington University in St. Louis’ newest alumni, stepped onto the job site of Jubel Hall on the East End site as a project engineer for McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. She had zero first-day jitters: She had been there before.

A December 2018 graduate of the McKelvey School of Engineering with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Wong spent the previous summer and fall semester as a McCarthy intern, exchanging her backpack for a hard hat and construction vest and walking from the classroom to the construction site where she now works full-time.

“I’d leave around lunchtime, go to class and then turn around and come right back to the job,” she said. “It was pretty convenient.”

It was also an opportunity unmatched for Wong, a native of Sacramento, Calif. “It’s one thing seeing a mechanical concept on paper or reading about in a textbook,” she said, “but you understand it 10 times better when you experience how all these different components come together to actually make a building work.”

Like many high school students, Wong had no idea what she wanted to study in college — or even if college was in the cards for her. But she liked math and physics classes and on a whim applied to and was accepted in the pre-engineering program of St. Mary’s College of California as a first-generation college student. The school afforded her the opportunity and time to figure out exactly what area she wanted to study: A liberal arts background to go along with those math and science classes.

Through a dual-degree agreement with WashU, Wong arrived in St. Louis in the fall of 2016 to complete the five-and-a-half-year bachelor’s/master’s program, and now holds degrees from both schools — along with a job now helping to rebuild one of them. But she relishes her liberal arts background and the communications skills she learned along the way.

“As an engineer, you need to be able to articulate what you’re thinking to the architect, or the building owner or whomever you’re working with,” she said. “If you can’t communicate and talk to other people, then it’s going to make your job really hard.”

Maya Wong, mechanical engineering major, in Guy Genin’s continuum mechanics class at Sever Hall last fall. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

And Wong got the best of both worlds at WashU, taking advantage of internship opportunities first in San Francisco, then here in St. Louis with Murphy, the HVAC mechanical engineering company, and with McCarthy, where she was assigned to Jubel Hall.

“When I arrived on the job at Jubel this summer, the concrete walls and foundation were already poured,” she said. “But I got to work on the interior of the building and learned a great deal about the construction process.”

Wong works with Brian Belgeri, general foreman with Sachs Electric, on the lighting plans for Jubel Hall. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)



As a mechanical engineer on the construction site, Wong spends time studying blueprints, checking the measurements and catching any potential problems before they happen so a solution can be rendered immediately with the architect or engineer of record. The fact that a WashU mechanical engineering graduate is doing so for a building that will be teaching future WashU mechanical engineers is not lost on her.

“I could have been put on any other project — Schnuck Pavilion or the Sumers Welcome Center,” Wong said. “So this is just a really special and unique opportunity that no one — not even past or future students— are going to have.”

Jubel Hall might be her first official career stop, but it won’t be her last. “My graduate degree is mechanical engineering with an emphasis in thermal and fluid sciences,” she said. “I took a lot of HVAC classes and then some sustainable building classes. I’m interested in renewable energy and figuring out ways to save energy through building structures and systems.”

For now, she’s both learning on the job and helping blaze a new trail for women engineers, a field that is still wide open for women.

“As an intern, everyone on my Jubel Hall team was male,” she said, “but no one ever made me feel like my voice was not important. No one ever shut me down or failed to ask if I had anything else to say at the end of a meeting.

“So I want to give back,” she said. “I’m excited because McCarthy has a program for women in construction. I’m interested in learning how to be more of a leader as a woman in construction.”