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Nick Berenson: Community Forestry in Nepal

As I sat in one of my favorite brown recliner chairs in my mom’s office, I watched my mom stare intentionally at the computer screen: doing research and constantly making edits on her papers. As the sun started to set, the darker it got, the brightness of the computer screen just kept getting more harsh. I asked her “How much longer? We have to watch our show!” (Stranger Things at the time), where she would respond “Go ahead and start without me honey.” Even though I was in high school at that point, it inspired me how hard she worked. With the beginning of my undergraduate, I soon understood those long nights by the bright computer, having to miss out on my favorite show.

My mom being a researcher herself motivated me to go after my own research interests (perhaps it is in my blood too). I knew I wanted to do research at the intersection of environmental science and economics, so I decided to pursue an experience in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. I knew I wanted to do research in management of natural resources, in some capacity. Eventually I want to do research and be an educator in environmental economics; where I can inspire others to harness their skills in economics and blend their passions, even if it isn’t the environment.

I contacted Dr. Erin Sills early 2023 because I was interested in her projects and she gave me an opportunity to work on a project studying Community Forestry in Nepal. I began compiling sources for systematic literature reviews in factor analysis of participation and COVID-19 impact on these community forestry systems. With the compilation of sources, we can perform meta analysis on the data to find overall trends in research. I was able to work with two international graduate students who were performing literature reviews on both factor analysis and covid-19 impact. I assembled synthesis matrices with detailed information about each source. In factor analysis, we only considered research reports that performed a statistical analysis to establish significant relationships between community forestry participation and demographic, biophysical, economic, governance, and policy factors. However, in the COVID-19 impact synthesis matrix, I considered literature reviews and research reports: with and without statistical analysis.

After helping the graduate students with systematic literature reviews, I performed exploratory data analysis on primary source data on pre-sample data in Nepal. Before I got access to this data though, I had to complete training with the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). I had to complete a series of modules about human subject research (HSR), why it is so important, and processes associated with approval of HSR. I learned the importance of confidentiality, appropriate situations to request approval from the International Research Board (IRB), and why these organizations came into existence. With this, I assembled demographic, economic, agricultural, biophysical, community forestry, and COVID-19 data to be distributed back to the respondents, local government, and relevant organizations. I wanted to report any significant findings on the report, while trying to fully report demographics as that is what matters most to the respondents of the study.

Here is a picture of me doing the CFUG report, most of my experience is remote, with occasional in person meetings with Dr. Sills.

With my experience as a research assistant, it has solidified my belief that research is my calling and I see myself doing it for the rest of my life. The reason I am so confident in this is because I really enjoy this experience and I feel that I can actually make a difference with research. This experience was my first where I was treated as an equal in the realm of academia, which I appreciated greatly. Even though I still have much to learn, I felt that my skills and time were valuable to the team. Additionally, this experience leaves me a lot of independence, but I am aware of the expectations, which is very similar to the real world of research. Even the projects I am included in, I feel that it adds value to the project and I am not doing busy work.

My favorite part of the project is being able to form professional, academic relationships with mentors that will help me for many years to come. It is important to make good relationships in academia, especially if you plan to stay in the profession for a while. Additionally, looking at the paths other people have to get to where they are intrigues me, as well as providing me with support on decisions they may have previously had to make. For example, how much mathematics I should take in my undergraduate to be prepared for a successful graduate career. Additionally, I have been able to learn much about the international graduate students that I was working with, learning about their goals, and what they enjoyed the most about working in this field.

I am able to have many mentors at an earlier stage in my undergraduate career, which will be very helpful for me when it is time to apply to graduate school, find other opportunities, and focus on my own research. I feel that my research team is constantly willing to help, available for questions, and wants to see me succeed. Especially when I am in a newer place, it is nice to have an academic support system, where I know I can rely on them for advice. Finally, I am starting to understand the importance of research teams, how collaboration in scientific research is absolutely essential. Since research is very team oriented, it leaves more room for questions, deeper understanding of the subject, and develops a closer relationship with colleagues. This experience allowed me to learn about a professional academic team and the importance of them, especially as my career progresses.

Working with an international team from multiple universities is a unique experience I don’t think many other researchers at my age have. Additionally, the international research I am doing with my team can apply to other community forestry systems around the world. With international research, I have had to learn about some of the culture, religion, geography, and history of Nepal. For example, Nepal does have a caste system, which is very different from what I am used to here in the United States. This research is exposing me to the diversity of the world, its people, and how each of these people are dealing with the climate crisis.

At the end of the day, staring at the bright computer screen may cause headaches and you just want to watch Stranger Things, but the research on that computer screen makes the headache worth it.