The Courage to Keep Speaking
Douglas J. Sereno, 2015 Alumni Achievement Award winner, Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology
Douglas Sereno (BS ’85 MS ’87) grew up in Hawaii, and one of his earliest school memories was standing up for one of his classmates who was being bullied. “I was in kindergarten . . . and I was defending a kid, and I couldn’t get my words out. . . so the bullies bashed me on the head with one of those broomstick horses.” Over fifty years later, stuttering is still a struggle for Sereno, but with perseverance and bravery, he has learned to control it.
When Sereno was 28, he left Hawaii for California to care for his cancer-stricken mother. In between caring for her, he set out to find a job. A mechanic by trade, Sereno called a local tractor dealership to inquire about a job, but the phone call nearly flopped. “I stuttered so badly, the manager said, ‘Look, just come in and let’s talk.’” Fortunately, Sereno secured the job despite his stutter. “I guess he saw something in me,” says Sereno.
Sereno’s boss befriended the stammering young man and introduced him to the Church. “I took the lessons at his house, and was baptized,” Sereno says. Sereno also met his future wife, Mariellen, at a pool party hosted by his boss. All in all, it was a great year. Sereno says, “I met my wife and found the Church at the same time.”
After their marriage, Mariellen encouraged Sereno to return to school and finish his bachelor’s degree. “[Mariellen] was very supportive and told me, ‘You can do more than be a mechanic . . . I think you’ve got a lot of potential.” Doug left his career of 12 years, and the couple packed up and headed to BYU.
At BYU, Sereno jumped into the civil engineering major and fell in love. “I realized civil engineering was a people-serving profession,” Sereno says. “We were building and supporting the welfare and quality of life of society.” Sereno joined the American Society of Civil Engineers while at BYU, and helped the local student chapter build a wooden truss bridge for a nearby park, and in Sereno’s words, “it really opened up my eyes to see that we are a profession that serves people big time. . . . It was an outstanding experience.”
Sereno loved the program, but, after graduation, his stutter continued to trip him up. Sereno remembers, “My graduate advisor, Dr. Wood Miller, called me and asked if I would present a paper on our research with him, and I chickened out. I was just so scared of getting up in front of 300 people. . . and presenting engineering findings. . . . That to me was one of the worst failures of my life, and I was so disappointed in myself.”
After he graduated, Sereno’s stammering was a continuing stress. “In the field of engineering, you have to speak, you have to talk to people, but who was going to hire me when I interview with them?” Fortunately, Sereno did find work, and he and Mariellen returned to California, where Sereno would later face one of his biggest engineering challenges—renovating the Hyperion Treatment Plant.
Located outside of Los Angeles, the Hyperion Treatment Plant is responsible for treating sewage and wastewater from LA before releasing it into the Santa Monica Bay. The lack of certain treatment processes caused severe environmental damage to the Bay’s ecosystem and many underwater plants and animals began to die off. Nearby beaches experienced frequent closures from the water quality problems and frequent spills. The dilapidated plant desperately needed an upgrade.
Plans were made to rebuild the existing treatment processes and add full secondary treatment processes to rectify the water quality issues, but to complicate matters, the plant had to remain open and operational during the construction and continue treating the vast amount of wastewater it received daily. “It was like rebuilding a Boeing 747 in flight,” Sereno describes. “We had to keep the plant running, completely overhaul it, and also add to it. It was a very difficult job.” The job was so difficult, and the results so impressive, that it was selected as one of the 10 most important civil engineering projects of the 20th century by the American Public Works Association. At the end of the project, the water leaving the treatment plant was free of solid waste and chemical pollutants. The plants and animals began returning to the Santa Monica Bay ecosystem, and the water quality improved significantly.
After working at Hyperion, Sereno moved to the Port of Long Beach—the second largest port in the United States, and second only to its neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles. Together, the two ports receive almost 50% of the containerized goods entering the United States, and the cargo ships pulling into the ports were considered the highest polluters for the South Coast Air Basin. Sereno says, “The ships’ pollution, combined with the pollution of nearly 17,000 trucks a day entering and leaving the port, lead to hotspots for asthma. . . .It was predicted that there would [eventually] be cancer hot spots along the freeway and in close proximity to the port.”
Concerned with the health and environmental risks, port officials developed a multi-year plan to control port emissions, specifically to reduce the nitrogen oxide pollution by over 90%. With all the port departments working in tandem, the port exceeded expectations and met the standard a three years ahead of schedule. Sereno says, “We built infrastructure so ships would hook up to electrical power on the shore and then shut their engines down while they were in port. . . . We converted nearly all of the 17,000 trucks to meet stringent emissions standards. . . that required replacing a lot of trucks.” Sereno and other engineers helped convert terminals to run on electric energy, and helped automate many of the terminal operations. “We spent over 10 years working on that project,” Sereno says. “We were trying to clean up the air through electrification and better efficiency. . . I was very proud to be a part of that project.” Now nicknamed the “Green Port,” the Port of Long Beach has reduced its pollution problem dramatically.
Although Sereno’s stuttering still affects him, he says people barely notice it most of the time. “The most important [help for my stammer] is when I became a bishop and I had to get up and speak every week to our congregation,” Sereno says. “It increased my confidence to the point that now, a lot of people can’t tell if I stutter.” Some days are better than others, but Sereno says, “It’s just the courage to keep on speaking. . . I have the confidence now because of the church and my professional life.”