Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
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Visionaries - April 26, 2022

Meet Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, One of Africa’s Most Brilliant Scientists

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe was nicknamed “The Professor” as a child because of her insatiable appetite for books. 

This prompted her to begin her studies in soil ecology when she was 18. She went on to become a well-known biogeochemist and political ecologist.

Her efforts and research have received widespread recognition, prompting President Joe Biden to nominate her as the Director of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy.

Asmeret is currently a Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry and the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and Geology at the University of California, Merced’s Department of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Her research group is inquisitive about learning more about how the soil regulates the earth’s climate with a mission to change people’s perceptions of the soil and perceive it as more than simply dirt because it has a significant impact on our environment.

Asmeret’s research also includes political ecology, with the goal of better understanding how armed conflict contributes to land degradation and how people interact with their surroundings.

She co-authored a review that examines the relationship between global change, soil, and human security in the twenty-first century, including food security and water quality, and proposes interventions and solutions for long-term soil management.

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The early days

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe was born and brought up in Asmara, Eritrea, a country bordering the Red Sea in northeast Africa. 

She earned her bachelor’s degree in soil and water conservation from the Eritrea’s University of Asmara. She was one of three women in a soil science department class of 55 students. 

She went on to Michigan State University to pursue a Master’s degree in Political Ecology with a focus on the effects of land degradation and with the goal of better understanding how landmines contribute to land degradation. 

Asmeret subsequently completed her doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she got her PhD in Biogeochemistry in the laboratory of ecologist John Harte, with Margaret Torn and Jennifer Harden as co-advisors.

Her graduate research focused on how erosion affects carbon exchange between the ground and the atmosphere. According to her findings, erosion can actually cause soil to store more carbon. 

She completed her postdoctoral study at UC Berkeley with the help of the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, where she was mentored by Johan Six and Jillian Banfield, and then transferred to the University of California, Davis.

Global works

Berhe’s work at the crossroads of soil, climate change, and political ecology is relevant to various global challenges. 

She was a member of the working group that created the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment during her graduate studies, which the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested to analyse the impact of people on the environment. 

She was the lead author of the chapter on “Drivers of Change in Ecosystem Condition and Services” in the 2005 report. In 2005, the Assessment was awarded the Zayed International Prize for the environment.

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe was selected as an early career leader for the inaugural National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine New Voices in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine cohort in 2018, working to advance the conversation around key emerging global issues and communicate the evidence base surrounding those challenges. 

Berhe is an advocate for women in science. She is currently a co-Principal Investigator of ADVANCEGeo, which is working to transform the workplace climate of the geosciences to increase the retention of women in the field and develop a sustainable model that can be transferred to other scientific domains.

The Earth Science Women’s Network, the Association for Women Geoscientists, and the American Geophysical Union are now working to eliminate sexual harassment in the earth, space, and environmental sciences. 

The program is funded by a four-year $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Berhe is on the executive board of the Earth Science Women’s Network and serves on the advisory board of 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots movement dedicated to making science open, inclusive, and accessible.

In 2019, she gave a TED talk on the function of soil in climate maintenance. The focus was on the relationship between soil use, deterioration, management, and greenhouse gas fluxes from the terrestrial ecosystem to the atmosphere.

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