Jennifer Nakayama

Current Position: Director of Operations at Hawaii Convention Center
Jennifer Nakayama
Highlight Don’t forget that it takes more than the engineer alone to achieve true success in a project. Communication and cooperation are vital to everything we do.
March 18, 2009Her job: Manager, Design & Engineering, SeaWorld San Diego
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I am a Manager in the Design & Engineering department at SeaWorld San Diego. I oversee the planning, design, and construction of capital projects for the theme park. This includes working with other departments such as Water Quality, Environmental, Merchandise, Culinary, Park Operations, Plant Engineering, Entertainment, and Zoological to ensure a project’s success. My primary interest is in water quality and water is what makes SeaWorld thrive! From the Life Support Systems for the animals, to the cooking needs in the culinary restaurants, to conserving in our landscaping and restroom facilities, water is intertwined in making a theme park like ours work 365 days a year.
Why did you choose engineering? I have always excelled in math and science, with my mom being a high school math teacher and my dad a biochemist at a university. So I had those influences from an early age. I enjoyed the school science fairs when I was growing up and then took a liking to managing projects early on in my professional career. This enables me to see the “big picture” while working with people to produce a quality project, which acknowledges that it takes more than just engineers to make things work.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I grew up in Riverside, California where I attended Harrison elementary, Chemawa junior high, and La Sierra high school. I received a Bachelor of Science from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo in Environmental Engineering, and went on to gain my Master of Science degree in Civil Engineering at the University of California Davis. I also have my professional engineering license in the state of California.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? I come to my office in the "back-of-house" and start my day by reviewing pertinent emails and telephone messages that need immediate attention. Then I get started with my projects. Since I oversee on average 10 different projects at any given time, I need to prioritize my tasks for each day. My days range anywhere from reviewing a design, working on a project schedule, holding meetings with my design and construction teams, or visiting the project site to make decisions on constructability questions. When I have the opportunity, I spend time working on planning initiatives, such as budgeting and master plans, or volunteering time on outreach activities like participating on professional society committees, advising an engineering board, and mentoring college students.
What do you like best about being an engineer? Being an engineer has given me the background of the mechanics for many things that we encounter everyday, like sturdy bridges or clean water. I feel that being an engineer has opened doors for me to pursue whatever I want to do. The credentials of an engineering degree, along with a professional license, are irreplaceable. Having a technical degree, I never thought that I would get an opportunity like this to work at SeaWorld. The most intriguing part of working as an engineer at an entertainment park, is that there's always areas to make improvements for the guests. Thinking like a guest, but with my engineering “hat" on, is where the most challenging creativity comes in.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? I take pride in my communication skills. I love to interact with people and make presentations. Hearing that my co-workers view me as more than “just an engineer” is a very proud time for me. I spent some time teaching at the university where I received my graduate degree and the moment that you can see the “lightbulb” turning on for students is very fulfilling also.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Being an engineer has taught me that I need to “think outside the box". Sometimes problems cannot be solved simply through traditional math and science. It takes teamwork and collaboration from others to make a project in the “real world” work for everyone, not just the engineer. They didn't teach that in school. Engineering is 50% book studies and 50% real-world experience, but it’s 100% teamwork (see… it’s not all about correct math!).
Please tell us a little about your family. I have one sister, Karina, and she is pursuing her Doctorate at the University of California Davis in BioMedical Engineering. Though we are almost a decade apart in age, she is my best friend that has seen me through many things. My father is a biochemical researcher at the University of California Riverside and my mother was a high school math teacher in Corona, California. I am a fourth generation Japanese-American citizen with 6 uncles and aunts, 12 cousins, and 3 surviving grandparents.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? The thrill of solving a problem or completing a project milestone is very rewarding. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction to know that you've achieved something, however big or small it might be. Simply... don't give up on your passion. Whether that passion is engineering or cooking or dance or anything in-between, it's most important to be happy and fulfilled in life. It's one thing to only be satisfied... and another to be genuinely fulfilled. I’ve been asked before if I could solve any engineering problem, what would it be? I'd like to tackle global sustainability. This would include innovative planning for our natural resources, like air and water, and the subsequent infrastructure to sustain development. As our Earth continues to develop and become more and more populated, there is a need for collective planning across the globe.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? My family has always guided me to believe in myself, whether that pertains to engineering or not. And I've had many inspirational teachers that have challenged me along the way.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? Don’t forget that it takes more than the engineer alone to achieve true success in a project. Communication and cooperation are vital to everything we do.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I love to travel and would like to take up dance again at a professional studio. I also like to cook, watch movies, and take my dog on walks with Brian, my significant other.