Sunoj Shajahan is a research associate with Cornell CALS’ Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP). With a background in agricultural engineering, he joined the NMSP team with the goal of eventually taking a faculty position. This fall, Shajahan embarks on a new journey as assistant professor in computational engineering for precision agriculture in the agricultural and biological engineering department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hear from Shajahan as he reflects on his growth throughout his time at NMSP.
Sunoj Shajahan joined the Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) in October 2019 as a postdoctoral researcher. He had a strong background in engineering, ranging from his undergraduate and master’s studies in food process engineering at Tamil Nadu University, to his Ph.D. in agricultural and biosystems engineering at North Dakota State University. In December 2022, he transitioned into a research associate position with NMSP.
When he began at NMSP, he aimed to grow his expertise in computational engineering, big data analytics, and building automated workflows. Shajahan also hoped to learn about the different ways he could apply these concepts to digital agriculture and agricultural sustainability.
“I like how NMSP puts data into action,” Shajahan said, "translating engineering concepts for farmers, stakeholders and consultants who see value in working with us.”
Shajahan’s projects largely focused on precision agriculture, exploring alternative approaches to estimating corn yield using satellite and drone imagery. Although he focused on yield estimation for corn silage and grain, he is looking forward to expanding the skills he has acquired at NMSP and bringing engineering solutions to agriculture. His goal is to simplify data-intensive agricultural research by streamlining data extraction and processing.
“I am confident that I can apply the skills that I learned in this project to any other crop and domain,” he said.
During his time at NMSP, Shajahan produced peer-reviewed publications, participated in proposal writing for extension-focused state funding sources and federal grants, and focused on applied research. He was involved in recruiting new team members (including students and staff) and gained communication skills.
“Working at NMSP has been an incredible journey, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunities, experiences, and support I have received during my time here,” said Shajahan. “The dynamic, diverse environment and the amazing team of colleagues have significantly contributed to my professional growth. This invaluable experience instilled the confidence I needed to pursue a faculty position, acquire grants, and handle projects independently.”
He valued opportunities to meet with farmers, spearhead on-farm research projects and present research findings to farmer and farm advisor audiences. Shajahan particularly appreciated presenting at the Field Crop Dealer Meetings, annual Northeast Region Certified Crop Advisor meetings, and at events organized for farmers by field crop extension educators.
“Presenting findings to farmers and crop advisors puts into perspective the true purpose of my research journey,” he said.
“It’s not about data and numbers, it’s about positively impacting the producers who work day and night to improve their productivity. They want to turn data into actionable information.”
Shajahan is excited to start his new faculty position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2023.
“I am looking forward to bridging the gap between engineers and agronomists while working with individual students and continuously evaluating their progress in a meaningful way,” he said.
In his time with the NMSP, he recognized his growing passion for research and how he could apply his skills to contribute to the development of practical tools and solutions for farmers.
“I am thrilled to have the freedom and resources to pursue innovative projects that align with my passion and expertise. Being a faculty member offers a platform to mentor and shape the next generation of scholars, which is a responsibility I wholeheartedly embrace. The potential to make a lasting impact on students' lives, guide them toward success, and help them discover their true potential, brings a deep sense of purpose to my work.”
Quirine Ketterings, professor of animal science and director of the NMSP, reflected on her experience working with Sunoj over the last three years.
“I am thrilled that he started his Assistant Professor position,” Ketterings said. “He took all the opportunities to learn in our team and from the many stakeholders we work with. Seeing him develop into the confident researcher, educator and mentor that he is now has been tremendously rewarding to see. I look forward to continued collaboration in future years as he develops his program in Illinois.”
“The first day that I joined NMSP,” said Shajahan, “Quirine asked what I wanted to learn that would help set me up for success. Now, as a product of my time here I am a better team leader, especially when it comes to time and project management. Quirine has played a major role in my life, and in my career, and I am super grateful for her support.”
Madeline Hanscom is a writer for the Cornell Nutrient Management Spear Program.
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