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Seeing sustainability’s bigger picture

Adam Nayak, winner of the 2022 J.E. Wallace Sterling Award for outstanding leadership and service, will graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering and a minor in comparative studies in race and ethnicity. He plans to complete a degree in management science and engineering next year, then pursue a PhD with a sustainability and social impact focus.

(Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

As a child, Adam Nayak spent hours exploring Johnson Creek, which ran through his neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. He joined his local watershed council at age 9, helping conduct surveys of organisms living in the creek, identifying birds, and making friends with like-minded citizens, most of them decades older.

The creek taught Nayak about ecology – and something about equity, too. Studying the effects of urban development on watershed hydrology near Portland, Oregon, he was quick to notice that flooding from the creek had different effects in different neighborhoods.

At Stanford, Nayak leaned into that intersection, majoring in civil and environmental engineering and minoring in comparative studies in race and ethnicity. For his senior thesis, he examined how California droughts, driven by climate change, tend to reduce water bills for higher-income residents and increase them for lower-income residents.

“I don’t think of my major and minor as separate entities because together they tell a more complete story about people,” Nayak says, “and the ways in which we can build and improve our systems to meet the needs of all our communities.”

Sustainability and equity have driven Nayak’s involvement as a student. After joining the Stanford chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World as a freshman, Nayak served as co-president for three years. He’s also been a peer advisor for the Haas Center for Public Service, a leader of Students for Workers Rights, and a resident assistant in the 576 Alvarado co-op, which has a rich tradition of bringing together queer and BIPOC communities.

Nayak also served as a student representative on the search committee for the inaugural dean of the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. He’s excited about the ways the new school will bring together disciplines and people to collaborate on solutions to environmental problems.

“All of these pieces coming together into one school, is, in my opinion, going to make a really big difference in the ways that we conceptualize sustainability, outside of just environmentalism,” he says. “The science is important, but there are significant social and cultural implications to the work we do.”

Nayak has been awarded the 2022 J.E. Wallace Sterling Award from the Stanford Alumni Association, for his outstanding leadership and service. He will continue his studies at Stanford next year, earning a co-term degree in management science and engineering, before pursuing a PhD.