Student Spotlight: Sonja Loy

Student Spotlight - Sonja LoySonja Loy is a third generation Aggie and a senior in Biological and Agricultural Engineering. 

During high school she began to research her interests and realized she had a deep intense interest in water resources and agriculture which ultimately drew her to Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

This week, Sonja sat down and chatted a little about her experiences at Texas A&M and in the department.

What drew you to Texas A&M?

Sonja: As a third generation Aggie, Texas A&M and College Station have always been close to my heart and mind. When I was applying to colleges, I was specifically drawn to the high quality and reputation of the BAEN department at TAMU and to the high quality of people and community that exists here in College Station. Although I applied to over 10 different universities as a high school senior, I believed that A&M offered me the best opportunity for both academic and personal growth. In hindsight, as a soon-to-be-graduating senior, I still believe that to be true.

Why did you decide to study Biological and Agricultural Engineering?  What interests you about BAEN?

Sonja: Growing up, I always had a propensity for analytical problem solving and math, and I have always loved being active in outdoor activities and thrived when working in team environments. Also, driven by my faith and inspired by involvement with community service and mission trips, I had a desire to help people in a tangible, practical way. Considering these things, someone suggested to me that I look into environmental or agricultural engineering, a discipline I was unfamiliar with. In looking more into it, I developed an intense interest in water resources and agriculture and became incredibly drawn to Biological and Agricultural Engineering. I really like the insight that BAEN gives me in studying natural resources with an agricultural perspective. I have also come to immensely appreciate the passion, vision, care, and drive that the people in the field of BAEN tend to have.

What clubs are you a member of and why?

Sonja: For the past couple of years, my main extra-curricular involvements have been with an organization called Engineers Serving the Community (formerly the local projects branch of Engineers without Borders) and with the outdoor recreation program at A&M called Outdoor Adventures.

In my freshman year at A&M I joined the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which evolved into the founding of and participation in a new organization: Engineers Serving the Community (ESC).

My initial involvement with EWB was through an international project in Costa Rica aimed at upgrading a village water distribution system and implementing a new pumping station, relying on team collaboration.

As that project neared completion, I was recruited to join the team of a local project involving the implementation of a green roof on the main engineering building on campus.  During my first year of leading the green roof project, I participated in the decision, made jointly with the main EWB chapter, to found ESC, which focuses on local engineering projects. The transition allowed us to better address our needs and goals locally, and the project has allowed me to acquire and develop important professional and technical skills: from persuading the College of Engineering leadership that the green roof is a worthy addition to the building, through design proposals and budget planning. We participated in planning with directors, engineers, and architects while working towards implementation; we also wrote a successful proposal for funding to implement an educational kiosk to accompany the roof. We continue to communicate and meet with the college affiliates, designers, and constructors of the building during the current construction phase. My involvement in and leadership of this project has developed and strengthened my own skills in communication, team collaboration, project management, and detail-oriented planning for wider goals. It has been incredibly exciting and rewarding to be part of this project, especially considering that the fruits of our labor will become a sustainable part of the university campus for a long time to come.

Secondly, this past year I have also had the opportunity to be employed by the outdoor recreation program at Texas A&M, Outdoor Adventures, where I have risen from being just a staff member to being a trip leader, a teaching assistant for university classes, and a program supervisor. It has given me the opportunity to cultivate skills in whitewater paddling, rock climbing, and back country camping and hiking to be able to teach others and introduce them to these sports in a safe and sustainable way. Additional to obtaining certifications in life guarding, river rescue, wilderness first aid, and climbing wall instruction, I’ve also lead and interacted with hundreds of people through paddling, climbing, and camping. I significantly value my outdoor pursuits as a way for me to personally advocate for the environment and on behalf of sustainable resource-use as these relate to human health and thriving: it is a direct method of helping others develop an affinity for the natural world; one that hopefully will play a role in driving environmentally sustainable decision-making in the future.

Have you been abroad?  Tell me about your experience.

Sonja: Between my third and fourth years of undergraduate studies, I was fortunate to participate in two profound and enlightening study abroad experiences that gave me a unique and broader perception of resource use in agriculture. The first was a week-long exchange program in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, where we lodged in the homes of students of the University of Guanajuato, and went on a number of tours of farms and processing plants with the goal of better understanding the agricultural practices and norms of the area. I had ample opportunities to practice my spoken Spanish, developed meaningful international friendships, and learned a great deal about resource use and the agricultural industry in Mexico.

Later the same summer, I attended a 6-week study abroad program in Leuven, Belgium, where we enjoyed a class on wastewater treatment design and a class on environmental hydrology. Additional to these courses were weekly seminar speakers from European Union and Belgian environmental agencies, weekly field trips to water treatment plants, waste-management plants, and water projects relevant to the courses.  We were given long weekends to travel on our own, during which I was able to visit each of the countries that share borders with Belgium, and to make my European experience rich with not only academic but also with cultural learning: I studied subjects of tremendous interest to me in countries (Belgium and The Netherlands) known for their water management accomplishments and rich histories. We also had plenty of opportunity to ponder and discuss the multiplicity of ways to exist in our world.

Tell me a about the research you are doing?  Why do you want to do research?

Sonja: Compelled by the purpose and challenge intrinsic in the search for resource security and resilience, I began my undergraduate research with an interest in water resources as they relate to food. In my work and under the mentorship of Dr. Rabi Mohtar, I quickly came to understand that soil is the heart and connection between water and food security. This led me to begin experimentation and analysis of water reuse options for irrigation, specifically focusing on the use of greywater, defined as water from a building’s bathroom sinks, showers, and washing machines. My work has centered on analysis of the hydro-structural properties of soil as they are affected by greywater application, utilizing a recently developed scientific methodology for characterizing soil and water interactions with a new device housed in a lab in our department called the TypoSoil. I have learned and grown so much through my research experience as a student, researcher, and person. I’ve really enjoyed getting to really understand the research process and having interaction with and mentorship from professors and graduate students, learning much from them.

What do you want to do when you graduate?  Why do you want to go that direction?

Sonja: Directly after graduating, I plan to pursue a Master of Science in Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Texas A&M.  In my graduate studies, I am interested in the area of environmental and natural resources in studying the feasibility of non-traditional water use in helping to bridge the water gap, particularly as it relates to agriculture and food security on a local scale. By pursuing a Master of Science in Biological and Agricultural Engineering, I hope to continue, confirm, and extend my previous work in undergraduate research to comprehensively analyze and evaluate the feasibility and implications of using greywater for irrigation with particular emphasis on soil hydro-structure and health and water systems design.

Subsequently, my future academic and career goals are to contribute to the pursuit and achievement of sustainable natural resource use and management, particularly of water and soil. I hope to become a professional engineer and work for either a government agency or a non-profit organization involved in the research and implementation of sustainable water use designs. I also plan to eventually pursue a PhD and use my skills and knowledge as a teacher, advocate, and in service agent about and for water and soil use as they exist in the nexus ideology and in the worlds of academia and policy.

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