Meet Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, Soil Science Professor at the University of California at Merced
From soil to social justice, Dr. AA Berhe is an advocate of soil health, anti-racism and equity.
Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is a Soil Science professor at the University of California at Merced (UC Merced). Her area of research is soil biogeochemistry, the field that studies cycling of essential elements of the earth system. Through her research on soil carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, Dr. AA Berhe aims to understand how soil systems control the Earth's climate.
Check out Dr. AA Berhe's Ted Talk which has almost 2 million views:
Why should we all care about soils?
Dr. AA Berhe explained that soil health and its role in ecosystem functions and the earth system is enormous and essential for our everyday lives. For instance, soils support almost all the food that we eat whether it is plants that grow in the soil or animals that feed from the plants we grow in the soil. In addition, soils provide us clean water, function as an engineering media, and most importantly, soils are full of life.
“There are more living things in terms of abundance and there's more diversity of life in the soil system than anywhere that we know. Soil is the habitat for life and the ultimate genetic reservoir in the earth system, if you will, reservoir of life.”
Soils are habitat for millions of living organisms that conduct critical biological and biochemical reactions, many facilitated by microbes that live in soil, that drive efficient processes like nutrient cycling and waste decomposition. Soil processes like decomposition and nutrient cycling can also impact climatic cycles and processes:
“During photosynthesis, plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but during decomposition, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That balance of taking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or returning it is the main mechanism by which greenhouse gases are delivered and taken out of the atmosphere, hence, how the Earth's climate and temperature is maintained. We owe our existence on the earth system with balanced atmosphere to soil.”
The Journey to becoming a Soil Scientist
Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe has always wanted to become a scientist. Even since she was a kid, she always enjoyed science and learning. In fact, her father used to call her “the professor” because she liked learning new things and explaining it back to her family. However, she did not grow up in a farm or exposed to soils, she grew up in a city. She discovered soil sciences later as an undergraduate student at the University of Asmara in Eritrea.
“I took the course and I just loved it. I didn't know too much about the science of soil before taking the course and learning about the major. Learning about the science of soil was an incredibly eye-opening experience. It was not just interesting, new science to learn. I thought it was also interesting how all the basic sciences that I loved (chemistry, biology, and physics), I could apply them to this amazing medium of soil.”
This new interest in soil science along with motivation from her father, who was also a lawyer and professor, were sources of inspiration for Dr. Berhe to become a scientist. Dr. Asmeret Berhe did her Master’s in Political Ecology of Land Degradation at Michigan State University and then pursued her PhD in Soil Biogeochemistry at the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley).
The options of teaching and doing research were Asmeret Asefaw’s main motivation for wanting to work in Academia. Dr. AA Berhe enjoyed teaching since she was an undergraduate student when she provided community service by teaching in a high school.
“I really wanted to be an academic, that was a career path that I pursued partly because of early influences and partly because of my exposure to teaching early on. That said, I've had students and postdocs in my lab that have pursued many different career paths. I think it's important for people to try different things and find the path that works for them.”
Dr. AA Berhe explained that it’s okay for students and/or postdocs to choose different paths compared to their advisors, she reiterated that we should all follow our own path;“I want all of my mentees to follow a career path that is best for them and makes them happy”.
Advice for Academic Rookies
Scientific publications continue to be one of the most important metrics of success in academia. Dr. AA Berhe stated that she advises early career scholars to look for the necessary resources and support that can help them publish good quality work as early and as often as possible because this is the most important step for securing tenure.
“You can be the most awesome teacher and science communicator but without enough publications you can't get tenure in research institutions. My advice to junior folks is: be a good citizen, you can participate in a lot of things but keep your blinders on when it comes to where you focus. Your focus has to always be on getting those papers out, to ensure that you are publishing enough good quality papers to demonstrate that you are a fabulous independent researcher that could pursue novel research from beginning to end and can be part of the community that is generating novel knowledge.”
Dr. AA Berhe reiterated that, no matter all the important and exceptional teaching or service that an assistant professor does, these do not count as much as publishing papers when it comes to getting tenure. If you disagree with this focus, and she acknowledges it might seem unfair to say this, but Dr. Berhe advises that:
“That's a fight you cannot realistically win as an assistant professor (or a person holding another early career researcher position). That's a fight you can have later on when you are a tenured professor, a member of the academic community that has power and privilege in the system to have major influence to change the system. As an ECR, you job should be to ensure that whatever the criteria is, you make sure you know what it is in your institution and your department, get a very clear idea of what criteria they are using to judge you so that you make sure that you hit the ball out of the park on every one of those criteria.”
Writing is a learning process: Advice for Graduate Students
In contrast to what many students are used to, especially from undergraduate studies, scientific writing in graduate school is very different from other types of writing. Most importantly, writing is a skill that takes substantial practice and time. Scientific writing is a long process of constant writing, editing, reading, getting and addressing feedback, and re-writing until the piece is complete, as Dr. Berhe mentioned.
“Learn from people who've done it well and resources that are out there. It may be frustrating, but just keep in mind that is only the first paper that's going to be that frustrating. Then, the next ones after that they're all going to be easier because you know how to do it. That exquisite combination of passion and persistence is what you need to get through the process of learning to write (and generally thrive in the academic system).”
The reality is that no one is born possessing excellent writing skills [or at least it is not common] and even the scientists who we admire have gone through these struggles. So, accepting that writing is a learning process, having a positive learning attitude, and not taking feedback or comments personally will help make the process go smoother.
Role models and Community Support help in surpassing Challenges in Academia
Feelings of identity and self-belonging can be strongly difficult especially for people from underrepresented groups in predominantly white, cys-gender, and heteronormative Universities, especially the graduate programs. Some of the things that helped Dr. Berhe manage these feelings were: having a role model to follow and building a supportive community. Dr. Berhe’s role model was and is her mother, who went to college after having six kids while holding a full-time job. However, after moving to the USA to pursue her graduate studies, Dr. Berhe was surprised by the lack of representation of people of color in academia especially in the bay area of California. Dr. Berhe did her PhD at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), which is considered a progressive and diverse part of the country.
“I looked around and I was by myself. In many cases I ended up being the only person that looked like me especially in STEM areas and that left a weird feeling. I think the importance of role models early in my life was nice to have, but then at the time when I actually appreciated what it meant to have a role model, I didn't have any around me. I didn't have any [role model] that looked like me in particular and I think the differences and the challenges of people from different backgrounds started becoming clearer over time.”
On the other hand, Dr. Berhe counted with her family’s support since the beginning and was able to build a supportive community while being a graduate student in the US.
“I had a community of really supportive folx, advisors, peers, and in graduate school, and even my then boyfriend, who's my husband, I feel like I leaned on them quite a bit when things got tough. Thankfully, they were there to help me get right back up and move along. So, I feel like the best thing you could do for yourself in graduate school and when you're a junior scholar in general, is to surround yourself with a community of folx that share your background, or at the very least appreciate your background and the path that you're traveling and are willing to be supportive.”
Motherhood as a Scientist
Motherhood or Parenthood can be desired or not. One thing that many parents can agree on is that parenting is definitely challenging, but like any other scientific challenge, it is also definitely doable. Dr. Berhe had her first child as a PhD candidate. In fact, she submitted her dissertation to her committee on the same day before going into labor. Later, Dr. Berhe had her second child while she was as an Assistant Professor at University of California at Merced (UC Merced).
“There were two kids to juggle before tenure and it means our life was an continuous juggling act. But generally speaking, it also kind of makes you focus. Because you don't have time to waste, you end up becoming a very focused and efficient person in the job that you do and part of it is by necessity”.
Dr. Berhe’s advice is that we should pursue our personal goals along with any professional goals we have for our careers. Life is happening now and all the time. Our personal goals are as valid as any other goal. We should do what makes us happy. Dr. AA Berhe described her motherhood experience as challenging but extremely rewarding. Now that her kids are older, Dr. AA Berhe mentioned they like having fun together by traveling and baking.
Advice to the young students out there:
“Surround yourself with a supportive community, do your best and make sure you don't get discouraged by anything that might come your way - just stay focused on the goal.”
Dr. Berhe clarified that we need more women and especially women of color to form part of a diverse community of academia, the sciences in general, and every sector of the economy. It is only when we have a good representation of underrepresented groups in decision-making and leadership positions that we can advance as a society.
Why is it important to highlight women, especially women of color, in agricultural sciences?
“If you're really going to address society's problems, you need to be able to represent society.”
Dr. Berhe mentioned that increasing representation of underrepresented communities in leadership positions and decision-making is essential for identifying key issues that need to be solved and solving these issues in the correct and best way possible, especially in a way that respects the communities.
Thank you Dr. AA Berhe, for sharing your inspiring story with us!!
The WAgS Team
This interview was conducted through zoom, transcribed, and written by Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado (Noely), Co-Founder and Board Member of Womeninagscience.org. The Spanish Written version and English Audio version will be made available soon.