Alumni Career Spotlight: Karam Sheban

Karam Sheban

Karam Sheban
Environmental Policy and Decision Making ‘14
Post-Graduate Fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Karam graduated in 2014 after majoring in Environmental Policy and Decision Making. He recently received a Master of Forestry degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and is now working as a post-graduate fellow for the school. His Master’s research was funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, and examined the environmental factors affecting the success of forest-farmed American ginseng. He was heavily involved with research throughout his undergraduate career and volunteered with AmeriCorps between his undergraduate and graduate studies.

We spoke to Karam over the phone. Read the spotlight article compiled from our conversation:

A Glance at Karam’s Current Work

Karam earned his Master’s in Forestry from Yale in the spring of 2020, and has begun working as a post-graduate fellow for the Yale Forest School. His master’s research was funded through the USDA’s SARE program and focused on the success rates of ginseng plantings in the Northeast. His field site is in the Catskill Mountains of New York on a wild-simulated ginseng farm, which grows American ginseng in the understory of native forests. Karam’s research is motived by his interest in forest farming systems that allows farmers and forest landowners to make supplemental income by cultivating understory plants with commercial value. This approach of using sustainable land management to empower landowners is an approach to community development Karam encountered during his time between undergraduate and graduate school first as an AmeriCorps volunteer and later as a staff member at Rural Action, a community-development nonprofit based in Athens, Ohio.

At Yale, before Karam immersed himself in his research, he spent much of his first year of making relationships and coming to love beautiful New England. The forests, geology, and history of New England are different than in the Midwest, but also deeply connected; Karam’s research on understory plants that can be found in both places helped confirm that. As a post-graduate fellow, Karam will conduct research on native understory plants and the forest farming systems of the region as well as help manage forestry operations on Yale’s 6,000-acre school forest.

 As an undergraduate student, it can be hard to see the potential in a great relationship with faculty if you don’t know what you are interested in, but those connections will be valuable down the road. Karam recommends talking to professors about your interests and getting to know theirs.

Undergraduate Involvement

Karam was highly involved in research and extracurricular activities throughout his undergraduate career. He conducted research with both Dr. Robyn Wilson and Dr. Allison Snow. His research with Dr. Wilson examined attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of farmers who were responsible for agricultural runoff into Lake Erie, seeking to understand the connections between farmers’ expressed beliefs and their actions.

In Dr. Snow’s lab, he assisted in researching the competitiveness of switchgrass (a potential biofuel) compared with other native species. Entertaining a streak of interest in journalism, he wrote for the Lantern and worked at the WOSU public radio station on the public-affairs talk radio program All Sides with Ann Fisher. Additionally, he played ultimate frisbee and participated in student activism.

Professional Development

According to Karam, his most valuable professional development experience was volunteering with Rural Action through AmeriCorps. During his graduate school search, he wasn’t sure a school like Yale would be a good fit, but he found that the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies placed a high value on community service. His AmeriCorps experience allowed him to develop incredibly valuable skills in an organization with a social mission he truly believed in, and helped him get into graduate school.

Karam also reflects that becoming involved in undergraduate research has proven professionally advantageous. He remained in school for an extra semester in order to complete his project with Dr. Wilson. Taking this additional time to focus on his research helped solidify his working relationship with Dr. Wilson, who has since written recommendation letters for him and has been instrumental in his professional development. Additionally, Karam found that being part of a research group helped him connect with graduate students and gain insight into their graduate school experiences.

Advice for College Students 

Karam suggests taking the time to form authentic relationships with those professors who share your interests, because they can offer exceptional support and resources. As an undergraduate student, it can be hard to see the potential in a great relationship with faculty if you don’t know what you are interested in, but those connections will be valuable down the road. Karam recommends talking to professors about your interests and getting to know theirs.

Following graduation, the relationship with your professors becomes more of a peer relationship, and Karam still keeps in contact with some of his professors today. They are now interested in his research as well and ask him about his work.

Karam Sheban

Post-Graduate Life and Job Searching

Immediately following graduation, Karam embarked on a cross-country bike trip to Denver, Colorado. He took a few years off before going to Yale, working as an AmeriCorps member in Athens, Ohio. As part of his AmeriCorps service, he volunteered for Rural Action, a community development organization, where he was able to engage in environmental work with a community focus. He heard about the great work being done at Rural Action through an Ohio State professor, Dr. Becky Mansfield, and volunteered as an AmeriCorps member for two years with Rural Action’s Sustainable Forestry Program.

Once his two years of service were complete, he was hired for an additional year as a Forestry Program Specialist staff member before starting graduate school. During his graduate studies, he was also able to complete a virtual fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution. For this fellowship, he contributed to American ginseng research in preparation for the Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., a program based around Appalachian traditions.

Karam left his undergraduate experience with the recognition that organizations tend to conduct environmental work with either a top-down or community-centered approach. Karam knew he wanted to be doing community-centered environmental work. He valued Dr. Mansfield’s opinion and took her recommendation to work for Rural Action. He worked in their Sustainable Forestry program and loved the organization and their approach to environmental work. Without prior forestry experience, this was his introduction to the forestry world, and it led him to his current graduate field of study.