Spring 2024 grad: Jaya Suneja helps rebuild American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers student org

Jaya Suneja will be graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biological systems engineering and three certificates: business management for CALS, environmental studies, and studio art. She grew up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, and went to Hamilton High School in Sussex, WI. In this Q&A, she talks about her experiences in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers student org, the value of investing in your health and wellbeing, and her goal to become a licensed engineer who works on water management projects in water-scarce areas.

Why did you choose your major – and what did you learn, in a nutshell?
At first I was a civil engineering major, but near the end of my freshman year I realized civil was not what I really wanted to go into. That’s when I found biological systems engineering, which aligned with my environmental engineering career goal. Biological systems engineering is the perfect hybrid of engineering the environment to make it suitable for both human and ecological/environmental needs. It’s taking on the world’s most pressing human and environmental issues at the same time. For example, we have a growing population demanding more food from our agricultural systems as well as clean drinking water, but are we wasting products within our current systems? How can we grow food more sustainably to accommodate the growing population? Will we have clean, accessible drinking water without changes in our water use? These kinds of questions and answers make it possible for humans to live on the Earth while understanding the environment’s carrying capacity, and it makes for some super exciting research! BSE has four tracks: general, natural resources and environmental engineering, machinery systems, and food and bioprocess. I am on the natural resources and environmental engineering track. 

Classes within my major involved the fundamental engineering classes (calc I, II, and III, linear and differential equations, chemistry, statics, thermodynamics, computer science, CAD, and fluid dynamics), and then mostly BSE courses. These courses included conservation and nutrient management engineering, irrigation and drainage, small watershed engineering, small scale domestic waste systems, technical electives, a senior capstone, and much more! I’m so glad that I found this major, and that I was able to make so many academic and career connections while still in undergrad.

What other activities were you involved in?
One of the first activities I was involved in during undergrad was being an undergraduate researcher in the soil science department. In this role, I investigated the abiotic drivers of damping off disease at the WDNR’s only bare root tree nursery. I was awarded a fellowship to continue my research, and I even got to mentor a student as they completed BIO 152! That same year, I was the learning assistant for the Introduction to Soil Science class (SOIL SCI 230). 

I have also been part of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) UW-Madison chapter since my sophomore year. Beginning in my junior year, I was elected onto the officer team as the secretary, then I was the treasurer during my senior year, and I am currently president during my super senior year. Last spring, I was awarded the WI Section of ASABE Undergraduate Student of the Year because of my involvement in the organization and preparation in the field of environmental and agricultural engineering. Next year, our chapter will host the annual Midwest Regional Rally, so to prepare for that I helped apply for – and the org received – nearly $9,000 in funding to host about 12 ASABE Midwest chapters in 2025 for the rally. This club has made an enormous impact on my undergraduate career, and I am so proud of how far we have come to reawaken the club in the wake of the pandemic. I also got to meet Alice in Dairyland last fall at the Demeter picnic!

Last year, I was an operations supervisor at the Nicholas Recreation Center. This job was a ton of fun, and I got free CPR/AED training as part of it! I value academics, but health is above all else for me, and working at my favorite gym was both a great opportunity and so much fun with all of the friends I made. 

Currently, I am a service engineering intern at Madison Gas & Electric for residential services. In this role, I create drawings of new gas and electric service paths for new and existing residential addresses as well as communicate with builders when documents for their service application are missing. I love learning what the corporate environment and flow of work looks like, and I know that this internship has prepared me well for any future job I might have in terms of work flow and pace. 

What are your future academic and/or career plans – short-term and long-term?
Beginning fall 2024, I will be a graduate student here in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering focusing on agrohydrology. The project I am working on looks at micro-irrigation uniformity distribution in almond tree farms in California. I am super excited to get started! I will continue my involvement with ASABE, as well. 

During graduate school, I plan on taking the Fundamentals of Engineers Exam to become an Engineer in Training (EIT). Then, I hope to complete graduate school in 2026 and become a water engineer. After at least four years of engineering experience, I will take the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam to become a licensed engineer. Ultimately, I’d like to work on water management projects as a project manager or higher level engineer in states that suffer from water scarcity, such as California. 

What were the most valuable college experiences you had?
Most of the most valuable experiences I’ve had during undergrad have come from being part of the ASABE officer team. Our major, BSE combined with the student organization values tradition and hard work, and I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to be part of the BSE family. For example, each year we do our annual Lawn Mower Clinic fundraiser, which has been a fundraising event for ASABE since the 80s! We take in lawn mowers and snow blowers from community members, fix them up, test them, and deliver them back to their houses as good as new. It’s a great way to both connect with the community and learn relevant, hands-on skills. I probably save my parents hundreds of dollars each year because I know how to do all of these skills – no need to take them into a local hardware shop to get their machines cleaned up, have their oil changed, and their blade sharpened!

Another valuable experience I’ve had in ASABE would be participating in the Homecoming Parade in fall 2023. At that point, early in the semester, I barely knew my new officer team, and it was a fantastic experience getting to know all of them while putting together an awesome float representing the BSE department. My favorite part was creating the 6 ft tall plywood Bucky, which we hand painted and fitted an arduino linear actuator in order to make his arm wave to the crowd as our float passed by! I was so impressed with this year’s team, and I’m so proud of how well they work together to accomplish a common goal. 

When you think about your time here as a student, what are you proud of?
Again relating back to ASABE, I’m proud of how far the officer team has come and how prepared the non-graduating seniors are to take over next year. I am also proud of how prepared they are to host the next ASABE Midwest Regional Rally (MRR). MRR is a rally that the midwest ASABE chapters take turns hosting each year, and next year it will be hosted at UW-Madison! Last semester, I applied for and secured a large grant ($8,900) for our chapter to host this rally. I am proud to both have a great team that I am confident will do well hosting, and I am proud that I could leave this grant for them to make hosting easier on the fundraising side of things. 

On a completely different note, I am proud of how I value my health and wellbeing now compared to when I started undergrad. Working out at the Nicholas Recreation Center and being an employee there, I got to see first-hand how people (even young people) should value their physical and mental health as much as they should value their academic and career success. I am an avid believer in that if you do not invest in your health now, you will only find consequences later down the road. Also, getting CPR/AED certified though my job at the Nick was also super cool and is something that I’m proud of. 

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students? 
My advice to incoming CALS students is to take your time choosing a major. Choosing what fits your strengths best takes research, talking to people in different majors, and sitting down with your advisor to see what course loads you’re comfortable with. I didn’t find BSE until March of my freshman year. Once I did find the right major, I thrived in an environment where I felt inspired to work in that field after graduation.