Marlene Wong - September 2020's #WomenWhoTunnel

By Christina Martinsen posted 09-29-2020 12:44 PM

head shot of a woman in a black blazer and blue shirt with a quote pulled from the associated article.
Women In Tunneling features an exemplary female representative of the tunneling industry each month in order to highlight the significance of having diversity in the underground field. For September 2020, we are proud to introduce Marlene Wong, Senior Geotechnical Engineer at Stantec.
Join us in our interview with Wong below as she shares a few genuine and hilarious anecdotes about her day-to-day experiences as a Senior in the underground field.

  1. What is your actual involvement in the tunneling business?

I am a geotechnical engineer in the Tunnels and Trenchless group at Stantec. My tunneling project experience includes geotechnical investigations and design reports, alternatives analyses reports, design, contract documents, and services during construction. I am also NHI Tunnel Safety Inspection certified.


  1. How were you introduced to the tunnel industry, and why did you decide to pursue it as a career? 

I first learned about tunneling and underground construction in graduate school in a special lecture series by Professor Tor Brekke.  The majority of my experience is in geotechnical engineering for infrastructure projects, some of which involved deep excavations and tunnels.  After working on a few tunnel projects, I was interested in becoming more involved with the unique geotechnical challenges of tunnel design and construction.


  1. What is it like to work as an engineer on underground projects?

Geotechnical investigations only reveal a finite piece of information on the subsurface geology, so engineers need to anticipate risks, be prepared to expect the unexpected, and solve problems.  For example, at a site excavation adjacent to an existing building, there was intermittent seepage coming from under the existing building when the contractor was underpinning the foundation.  It seemed odd that the seepage rate varied significantly throughout the day.  One day I arrived at the job site and observed one of the underpinning contractor’s  personnel donning a Tyvek suit and duct taping his ankle and wrist openings, so I asked him why he had to do that.  He sighed and replied, “I’m going fishing for brown trout.”  It turned out that the sewage line for the building was not connected to the sanitary sewer system!


  1. What professional achievement are you most proud of, or feel defines you in some way?

I am grateful to have had many opportunities to gain field experience and to develop a reputation for integrity, good communication, and fairness. For example, during a geotechnical investigation in an older urban industrial area, we encountered a large number of conflicting underground utilities. I was able to quickly relocate borings with the drilling contractor, subconsultant, and client because of my previous communications and discussions of potential risks. I am proud of my ability to communicate with all parties in order to carry out the project goals in a practical and efficient manner.


  1. What do you hope the future holds for yourself, for the industry, and/or for other women who will be a part of tunneling & underground construction?

I hope the general pubic will become more aware of the importance of tunnels in everyday life as aging tunnel structures need to be replaced or rehabilitated.  With the increase in demand for above-ground space for transportation in congested urban areas, utilities, and conveyance structures, tunnels and underground spaces will provide a solution for these demands. 

Women have gradually increased their participation in tunneling and underground construction projects, and have developed networking groups, such as WIT.  I hope this participation continues to grow in the future and gain additional support from the industry. 


  1. Even though the number of women has been increasing over the years, the tunneling industry is still considered a male oriented environment. What can be done, in your opinion, to bring awareness of this business to a larger number of women?

Encouraging girls to be more involved in science and technology at a young age, and nurturing that interest through college is important.  Having a good peer support system and mentor(s) from both men and women in the tunneling industry.  In general, there needs to be an increased knowledge of the general public about what engineers do since infrastructure is a part of people’s everyday lives, especially with underground projects that the general public do not always get to see.


  1. What is your advice to an engineer looking to enter the underground field?

Networking and participating in technical organizations, such as UCA of SME, is an essential part of any engineer’s career to maintain existing relationships and make new ones.  It is important to get advice from senior engineers to gain their first-hand knowledge of project experiences they have had, which may not necessarily be written down anywhere. 

Thank you, Marlene, for sharing your personal insights with the UCA of SME Women In Tunneling community. We are grateful to have you as a member, and proud to have you representing Women In Tunneling.