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Alumni Profile: Q&A with Sutyajeet I. Soneja, PhD '14

Sutyajeet Soneja

Sutyajeet 'Sut' I. Soneja, PhD '14 is a graduate of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), now the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering (EHE). He received a Bachelor of Science in Biological Engineering and Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering, both from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. In addition to his PhD, he received a Certificate in Risk Sciences and Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Soneja admits he spent lots of time complaining about issues such as climate change, and realized that he could have an impact. "I came to the conclusion that I had something to say and the lens of public health is how I could leave my mark and make my voice heard," he said. After searching for the right school and faculty, Soneja decided to make EHS his home for the next five years. "Coming to get my doctorate was one of the best decisions that I have ever made."

While a doctoral student in EHS, Soneja's research focused on black carbon, a major climate change agent produced by the incomplete combustion of biomass fuels, in Sarlahi District, Nepal. His thesis, nested within a parent cookstove intervention trial, dealt with quantifying black carbon emissions at the household level produced by traditional and alternative cookstoves in rural, southern Nepal. Through interdisciplinary collaborations, he was able to conduct field-based research working with local staff in Nepal to assess cookstove emission exfiltration from indoor to outdoor in a mock house they built, as well as 50 actual homes. He was also able to take outdoor air samples across a wide area in order to build a geospatial predictive model that will be capable of assessing the correlation between black carbon emissions emitted from households and black carbon in the outdoor atmosphere. (Read more about Sut's experience in Nepal)

He has accepted a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Maryland School of Public Health Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) where he will examine climate change metrics and their impact upon human health. He joins fellow EHS alumni, Amy R. Sapkota, PhD ’05, and Amir Sapkota, PhD '05, who are both Associate Professors in the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the University of Maryland School of Public Health. In addition, part of this research will be conducted with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH).

Dr. Soneja answered a few questions about his experience as a graduate student and how he plans to spend the next few years.

Q: You studied air pollution and climate change. Did you know entering EHS that would be your focus?

A: I came to EHS with interests in air pollution and climate change, but didn’t have a specific project in mind. I knew I wanted to do applied research that was field-based. Finding ways to do applied research was very important to me so that I didn’t just spend my time doing hypothetical exercises. Going beyond research, I knew the School of Public Health was very active in the community and that I would have the opportunity to get involved within the School and the surrounding area. One of the things I love to do is travel the world, whether it be to major cities or somewhere more remote. Knowing that climate change has the potential to damage many parts of the world in addition to affecting millions of people really made me want to find ways to help reverse it.

outdoor sampling

Sut monitoring units for ambient (outdoor) air sampling.

Q: On what criteria did you select an adviser?
A: My initial adviser was Dr. Alison Geyh. I found faculty from various schools that appealed to my research interests and reached out to them long before applying. Alison was very generous with her time long before I applied and I came to the conclusion that someone that had no vested interest in me but was willing to invest her time like she did was worth working with. Unfortunately, she passed away a little more than two years into my doctorate, but I was lucky because Dr. Patrick Breysse stepped in as my primary advisor. Pat has been very supportive of me over the years and has showed relentless kindness towards me. Also, through my collaborations, I established another co-advisor, Jim Tielsch, who has been equally supportive of me over the years.

I knew coming into Hopkins that given the variety of research going on I would have the chance to establish collaborations across the University and take my research wherever I wanted. Alison opened the door of opportunity for me and changed the course of my life, which is something I am very grateful for, but support from great mentors, like Pat and Jim as well as Frank Curriero and Ben Zaitchik, took my expectations of where I thought I would be when I started and flat out blew them away.

Sut and Pat

Sut and Pat Breysse attending a convention in Sarlahi, Nepal.


Q: What's the direction of your research over the next 10 years?

A: In the short term, I am focused on gaining more experience with assessing health effects to exposure of climate change metrics and policy development. I’m still debating the best method to help me achieve these goals, but I definitely want to focus my efforts on domestic as well as international health. I think it is worth noting though that my future plans also encompass wanting to visit all seven continents. This is as important as my research interests…four down, three to go!

I would like to focus on the areas of sustainable research in the context of air pollution and emissions impact on climate change, as well as subsequent impacts to health. By combining field research and statistical modeling, my ultimate goal is to develop solutions to these types of problems that will help drive sustainability and improve overall environmental and public health. I would like to incorporate different aspects of public policy in order to apply these solutions to a much broader spectrum, thereby maximizing societal impact. I hope to scale up the solutions I develop for multiple applications, creating opportunities to influence political and business leaders in the international community in order to increase awareness and foster relationships to benefit public and environmental health policies.

Long term, I am interested in implementing interventions that will focus on combating climate change and assessing the impact upon human health on a global scale.

Hopefully, I'll be in a position as alumni, to give back to the Department and institution that provided me with such an enriching graduate experience.

Q: What advice would you offer current students on maximizing their graduate experience?

A: I think there are two main pieces of advice I could give. First and foremost, find great mentors. Having people that are supportive of you and in your corner is absolutely critical and can make or break your graduate school experience. If you find that the mentor you are working with is not living up to what you need, don’t be afraid to seek out others. This is your time and your research, so make it a great experience and make it count.

Second and most importantly is to ENJOY the grad school experience. Years spent pursuing your doctorate can be tough, frustrating, and at times what may seem unending. However, they can also be some of the most rewarding and enriching years, setting you up for a future with endless possibilities...and I do mean endless.

Sut's tips for an enriching graduate experience:

  • Get involved – join committees like the Environmental Health Sciences Student Organization (EHSSO) as they will give you a chance to network with other faculty and students so that you can learn about how they have approached their careers (and life in general).
  • Seek out experiences beyond just your research. Hopkins is a research-oriented school, so if it is teaching you like, seek out additional training to hone this craft beyond the standard teaching assistantships.
  • Have an organized, formal plan. It is easy to get bogged down in grad school, so have targets in mind with deadlines you should hit. Keep a detailed plan that you can easily revise to help guide and push you along.
  • Go to meetings and conferences, no matter how small, as you never know the ideas or collaborations it may generate!
  • Take breaks when needed, go on vacations, but work hard, stay focused, and don’t forget to smile!

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