ARTICLE № 009  October 2018

ASMERET ASEFAW BERHE


Biogeochemist

When conducting interviews, I’m always searching for wisdom and wonder. I’m looking for different ways to see the world, to make sense of things, to find meaning in everyday moments through stories. And inside of these stories, as we learn to understand one another, we understand ourselves. I mean, this is the thought behind our motto: discover yourself discovering us. If you think this places the burden of providing wisdom on the storyteller, I would disagree. I think wisdom is something we garner—something we collect from one another through story—through listening. My first instinct then is to tell you what kind of wisdom to gather and how to be filled with wonder as Asmeret Asefaw Berhe shares her stories. But shortly after I realize that it’s best to leave this active form of listening and engagement to you; to come to your own conclusions; make your own connections; find the wisdom and wonder that touches you personally; to discover yourself. What I will say is here... you will find a passionate soil scientist; a dedicated and nurturing mentor; an inspiring mother. Here, you will find an active member of the community to aspire to. I know that I do.


So, I’m always curious when I talk with people, what their level of engagement with nature was at a young age. Some had a lot—some had little to none; yet, we find ourselves in the same place… geoscience. Did you engage with nature?

No, actually... I didn't have too much engagement with nature. Part of it was because I grew up in Eritrea at a time when the independence war was going on. So going out hiking was not a safe activity. And if we went out, it would be in areas not far from the city. I grew up in the capital city. And...

... In Asmara?

In Asmara, yeah. And so we stayed pretty much near... or we would travel to the cities, and the beach, and the coastlines—especially the city Massawa, which is a beautiful place on the coast of the Red Sea. And that's in fact what I remember most about any kind of hiking-like activity is on the way to Massawa; because, that was a well-traveled road, and it was relatively safe until it was occupied by the freedom fighters. But until that happened, on the drive there, you could stop and walk around a little bit. Just observing what's happening on the drive there and back is an incredible lesson in environmental science. Because you go from the coast of the Red Sea, all the way to Asmara, about 2300 meters above sea level—that's how much elevation you gain in about 58 kilometers, as the crow flies. It’s like traveling across three seasons in two hours of drive. And the environment changed quite drastically. The climate changed drastically. The soils changed drastically. Vegetation changed very, very drastically along the way. I think that's one of the vivid things that stuck in my brain about nature, and how climate and other variables regulate the environment that we see. I mean, it's a pretty fast elevation change. You really start from desert. And you could see the Acacia Woodlands starting to build up. And then you actually move into a subtropical, sub-humid, forest environment. And one of the very few intact forests left in the area is not too far from there. And then you go onto the city of Asmara, which is on a plateau and it's pretty highland, elevation-climate-wise. And even after I was in university, one of the very few field trips we could take outside the university were mostly into that area. Because it was an easy way to demonstrate how things change quite dramatically in this drive—how soils are dramatically different as you move through this elevation sequence and come to the city—without having to wander into areas that could potentially have landmines… that could potentially have problems.

So that's the kind of exposure (to nature) I had. It was nothing like what most of the people I know in geoscience would have experienced. Like going on backpacking trips and things like that—that was not an option in a war-torn country that, at the time I grew up, had an active war. And later on is among the countries in the world that actually have a big landmine problem. So you just didn't wander into places you didn't know. To be safe.

I wonder if you could help me understand. You’re living in an environment where there’s active conflict around you, which regulates where a child, or anybody really, can walk or cannot walk. Did you grow up to fear walking or was this a fact of life that you adapted to?

So, this is not a big issue in the city, right. Where I lived in the city, you don't have that problem—you just don't get out of the city to do random things in places you're not sure about. And there were some areas that were completely inaccessible. Because at the time, the Ethiopian regime was in charge of the cities, and the country really, as a whole. But there were these places, as time went on, that got closer and closer to the city that were occupied by the freedom fighters, that were fighting for independence of Eritrea at the time. And so, there were these clear lines that had like literally armies standing on them that you didn't get close to. You just didn't get anywhere near that area. You avoided it by tens of miles, if possible, right. Because it's literally a war zone. By the end of my last year-and-a-half or so in high school, even that coastal city that I mentioned, Massawa, was not accessible because it was occupied by the freedom fighters. So you couldn't go there.

Places that you visited as a child....

Oh yeah...

... that you were able to...

... but then become inaccessible. But then Eritrea became independent, so it became accessible again. In post-independence, though, what you have to consider is that a lot of these places that were battlegrounds, have landmines. And so, the advice that you were given as a child, as a young person at the time is, "Stay in the road. Stay in proper paths that people have established where you can see that people have gone through first.  Just don't wander into places…” because you don't know what's mined and what's not mined, right. It's a real risk. I mean the thing is, I studied landmines, and land degradation later on in life. And subconsciously, I'm pretty sure this is what motivated it.

I can imagine.

And, so you know, the thing with landmines is it's the potential of being mined that blocks people and denies them access to areas, right. You don't even know for sure if it's mined. And there's no reason for you to know that it is mined or it isn't. But if there's a potential that it could be, you stay away from there. You just don't take that risk.

It’s the very idea of it.

Pretty much. One of the biggest landmine-related problems is this potential fear of mines being out there that may or may not be active. But you don't know, so you can't take that risk. And unfortunately, that limits a lot of the area and resources from populations, right. Hence, that is why post-conflict nations have a huge struggle improving their economies and agriculture...

... because there is still land that's just inaccessible...

... at least for fear that it could be mined, even if you don't know that it is mined.

How do you overcome that?

With time. With humanitarian demining efforts, and other ways that governments... I mean... this is something that can only be done by large international institutions or governments, right. So slowly... piece by piece… they comb through lands and areas. But that takes decades. There are areas around the world that are suffering from mines that were put on the ground during World War II.

That's crazy. So it's generation after generation. That reverberates.

Oh, big time. I mean, sometimes communities, when they're desperate, they let loose livestock or dogs into areas to test if there's something there. That's a kind of sad way to test if your land has mines or not, but when you're desperate and you don't have international help, that's an approach. Yeah. I mean, things got better after we got in college. Obviously, the country got to be independent.

Now, while you were in college, you stopped studying to go and teach high school for a little bit.

Yeah. That's something that we all did...

Was that part of independence?

It's after independence and because the country had a huge shortage of teachers.

Why was there a shortage?

Because... we were part of Ethiopia until my senior year in high school, right. That meant there were a lot of Ethiopians that worked in Eritrea, or there were a lot of Eritreans that would have left for the independence fight, or just left the country to emigrate somewhere else because of the war. And post-independence, when the elementary schools and high schools started back up, they were facing a teacher shortage. They just simply didn't have enough bodies to teach in the classrooms. And so one of the things discussed was potentially using the university students—asking if we could go and teach. And there was a call, and we all took that call and just went in.

How did everybody see that call? How did you see it?

I think it was... it ended up being a very rewarding experience. I mean, that's part of the reason why I solidified my path. Like, I really wanted teaching in my future. I mean, it was by no means easy, right. We were only two years out of high school ourselves. I ended up actually going back to my own high school to teach freshman english, at the time. And, I mean... the teachers and administrators were awesome and provided us with as much guidance as possible to handle it. But it was an incredible experience that forced us to grow fast, right. And just learn something that we hadn't, at least at that time, learned in college.

Really fast.

Big time. I was 19. But the thing is, my dad was a teacher before he went on to do other things in his career. So I took advantage of that to get some pointers—like classroom management and how to prepare a lesson plan. And he goes, "Just read the book. You know a lot of stuff. Now you just have to think about communicating it to the other kids." That was the hardest thing for me because most of the kids see you as... you know… you look like a high school student to them, right.

At 19, sure.

At 19... [Laughter] 20 by the time it ended. But still... yeah, just learning what happens if I didn't know the answer to a question that they're asking me. And being comfortable with the fact that I didn't have to know everything. And, just as long as I was honest with myself and them, and telling them that I wasn’t sure, but I'd find out, and we would all learn it afterwards. And getting the confidence not to be embarrassed by that. And you know, all of that stuff.

Were you embarrassed by it in the beginning?

Oh god, totally. Everything about it was intimidating, right. Having like 50 to 55 kids in the classroom at the time. I can't remember the exact number, but they were pretty big classes. And just not being intimidated. I'd never even been a TA in college at the time, right. I'm an undergraduate student myself. But then again, as time went on, it became pretty clear that I actually really liked it. It's not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoyed that part of the process.

You did that for a year?

Yes. And then just went back and finished college.

And... you began your undergrad thinking that you were premed, right?

Yeah. Even until later, there was part of me that thought about that. And even after I came to the U.S., I thought about taking the MCAT and shadowing doctors. There were parts of me that still... that dream was partly there.

Is it still there?

No. Completely not. [Everyone laughs]

And when I start introducing soils in any kind of outreach education, or even just a general-science audience discussion, that's the kind of stuff I bring up. Think about all these ecosystem services we derive from soil. But then, stop and realize how thin that veil around the world is, actually. And that thin veil of soils—loose material surrounding the Earth—is all that stands between life and lifelessness as we know it.


I wonder then, if you could speak about what it was like to take a soil science class for the first time, or describe that initial spark and growth.

Yeah, so I always knew I was going into science. There was no question. And chemistry in particular grabbed my attention. I really liked it. And, I think if you had asked me what I would major in, even as a premed, I would have said chemistry.

Why chemistry?

I really liked it. I still do.

Is there anything specific that you liked about it?

I think it's the fact that you can deconstruct and understand how and why things get to be the way they are—I still like that part of chemistry—and just being able to learn as much as possible about the things in front of me, and how they came to be, or how they could possibly change. But then I started learning about the major (soil science), and then a course that was taught, and then that sealed it.

How so? What about it sealed it?

Because I could see where all the sciences that I liked fit in—all of them, without having to sacrifice any—but also, [how it] could be useful to explain the natural environment. And I remember at the time, I knew very little about the actual science of soil, right. So every bit I learned just kept opening my mind up to this incredible world that I knew very little about. And I think to this day that remains what is exciting about soil science to me, and soils in general, is this thing that we take for granted, that's always around us. There's so much wonder in it. Just so much wonder lies in this material that we step on every day. And that kind of excitement is hard to come by for me from any other source.

It's alive.

Big time.

You have referred to soil as “the epidermis” of the Earth.

Yup. And when I start introducing soils in any kind of outreach education, or even just a general-science audience discussion, that's the kind of stuff I bring up. Think about all these ecosystem services we derive from soil. But then, stop and realize how thin that veil around the world is, actually. And that thin veil of soils—loose material surrounding the Earth—is all that stands between life and lifelessness as we know it.

That's crazy.

It is a crazy thought to think about and to wrap your head around. And in many cases, people get blown away when you start thinking about antibiotics and medicine, because most of us do not think about where these things come from, right.

... a lab [Laughter]...

... a lab somewhere. [Laughter] But it was actually a soil microbiology lab.

Really?

Yeah. It's this soil microbiologists, Selman Waksman at Rutgers. You know, this was at the time when TB was killing a lot of people. And the legend goes that they were having a lab meeting and somebody in the lab asked, "Why do people that get infected by the TB bug transmit the disease while they're alive, but as soon as we bury their bodies in soil, that transmission stops." And as a soil microbiologist, it clicked right [Snaps her fingers]. And somewhere in there, a group of soil microbial communities have figured out a way to combat this bug. And after investigating it for awhile, they found that there was this group of actinomycetes that released this compound called streptomycin.

Wow.

And he got a Nobel prize for it in physiology.

Wow. How come we all don't know that? That seems so important...

... in fact, I raise this topic a lot, because you can instantly see the connection that people get with soil once they can realize it's beyond this dirt they walk on. And most people you know at some level understand that food comes from there. But even though they might not understand the intricacies of the nutrient provision, and water, and the physical support for agriculture, at least they can recognize that plants grow in soil, and the animals that we eat, eat that plant, and things like that. But the rest of the ecosystem services, in particular the waste and nutrient recycling component, climate controls, and the fact that the soil serves as the most diverse habitat that we know of anywhere on Earth, are not things that most people can tell you—even most scientists, let alone people who are outside science. And so again, I find it fascinating and I feel like these stories have to be told. People have to understand how incredible this is; because, I think the community to some extent, treats soil as dirt. And we just walk around as if it's just dirt—unimportant stuff that's out of place and bother us. We don't stop and appreciate how incredible this world that is beneath our feet is...

... It's much more dynamic than we realize...

... an incredibly dynamic world. And if only we understood, you know... just as much as we hear about the exoplanets, if we heard about the wonders of soil, even just the microbiology happening in there, or the waste recycling component of it, that could go along way. Yeah.

Yeah. I mean... there are sparks in my brain right now. I need to keep focused [Everyone laughs]. I feel like when you are talking to me about soil, this is one human being talking to another human being about the wonders of life.

Yes. Big time. That's a perfect way to put it. [Laughter] The wonders of life and the wonders of the world...

… And this wonder and passion you have towards soil science, you carried with you to Michigan State to do your Master’s, where you previously mentioned you were still thinking about premed. But something changed...

… I started volunteering in a hospital when I was in Michigan, before I started my Master's, and I’m like, “No.” [Everyone laughs] That’s what I think sealed it. I was like, “Nah… I like school. I like education.” In fact, I remember having a conversation with my mom that, “I’m not really sure about this.” And she kept telling me, “You chose a pretty good major... that you liked… from the beginning. You clearly want to go to school. Why not just stick with that?” And even though that was what I was going to do anyway, that was the push I needed—somebody to tell me, “You liked it. You were good at it. It made you happy. Why not pursue it further?” So I decided, “Okay. Yeah. But, I want a more holistic understanding of environmental science…,” a bit more rounded—including socio-political things. And hence, political ecology at Michigan State came into play.

... when you see the students, the backgrounds from where our students come from, and the rate at which they're succeeding right now... it's a testament to how incredible it is when you actually welcome everybody, from every walk of life, and help them realize they're potential instead of standing in their way.


I’m wondering what Michigan was like... what your experience was like to enter graduate school in a seemingly different culture than where you were raised. Did it affect your perspective?

So... Michigan was actually an interesting and pretty positive experience for me. Part of it was because Michigan State, as a university, has a huge international student body. And they actually do a lot of things to integrate the international students and make sure that you have activities and things going on around you. And so…

… I guess I have an unchecked bias when I think about Michigan.

I mean, obviously Michigan State doesn't represent everything; but, I'm talking about Michigan State as a university. And so, in a way, I feel like that was an incredible transition. There were things about living in Michigan, including the fact that it started snowing that year around Halloween, that were a shock to somebody who grew up in tropical Africa. It's like, "Snow is not a thing we do." [Everyone laughs] So there were a lot of things like that, and cultural things, that I had to learn. But the community at Michigan state, and the friends, and in particular the connections through the International Studies, and the African Studies, and International Student Unions that they had, made things so much easier of a transition and less of a culture shock. The biggest culture shock I experienced was going to Berkeley.

How so?

I mean, I came from Michigan to Berkeley, and I didn’t even know how many students of color existed at Berkeley—or didn’t exist—to be honest with you. I was this bright-eyed, fresh graduate student trying to make sense of what I was supposed to be doing there. But for the most part, things were rolling and I was just trying to do my stuff. And then one day… this is the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management—big graduate group—and in front of the Department office, they used to have pictures of graduate students. Everybody’s picture was basically posted there. The photos are in a row, basically stacked. And I used to take a class down that hallway. And one morning I was just walking and you know, subconsciously scanning the pictures, and I reached the end and realized that I was the only black face in that whole wall of students.

The only?

For a while there, yep. [Laughter] I mean, I’m just walking. I didn’t even know that I was looking for a black face, but it hit me. We’re talking about over 200 students at this point. And I was on my way to class, and I could not focus. I’m like, “I cannot understand... is this real?” And I think that moment changed everything for me, right.

But, I had these incredible mentors...

… Men or women?

I had three PhD advisors: one man and two women. My major professor was on campus, but the other two advisors were in nearby institutions. And, to this day, I admire him. He’s an incredible, brilliant scientist who’s done all sorts of amazing work in physics and climate science. But beyond that, I think I admire him as a human being because I saw him in action—not willing to let things derail a student’s education. And I think that was probably one of the motivations that I had, especially being a senior grad student later, and post-doc. There are things we can all do to make the situation better. It might not be grand gestures, or grand institutional change—not at least at every point—but there are things we could do to make sure that people’s experiences don’t derail their education. That they get the support they need to just deal with stuff people throw at them.

And so, every time I think about culture shocks, or experiences that are difficult for somebody who doesn't share the majority's background, I think of how incredibly lucky I was in Michigan—going to Michigan State in particular. Because, the university, at least when it came to international students, had a very different feel and experience. The experience was very, very different.

And this is one of the reasons why we came to UC Merced. Because, the community here is an incredible student body—hungry to learn. You know, we're a minority majority campus with more than half of our students being first generation students.

More than half?

More than half of our students are first generation. It is big. Yeah. And so this is the kind of student body that I thought would deserve to see a role model, deserve to see somebody who is not necessarily sharing that mainstream experience. I'm not first generation myself, both my parents had a college education, and my dad multiple ones, actually. But, you share this one element that makes you unique from the mainstream experience. And I think that helps connect you with the student body that may not necessarily have come from that kind of family background, and not able to see themselves in the power structures and the system that is in place. And we have a lot of cool folks, even professors and administrators at UC Merced who were first-generation students themselves, who work tirelessly to just make sure that our students succeed. It's incredible. Because when you see the students, the backgrounds from where our students come from, and the rate at which they're succeeding right now, and putting this campus on a map... it's a testament to how incredible it is when you actually welcome everybody, from every walk of life, and help them realize they're potential instead of standing in their way. And every little bit of contribution towards that is incredibly more gratifying than anything else.


You had a child in grad school.

I had a child in Grad school.

What was it like having a child during your graduate work? We have a 2 ½ year old at home… and that at times is hard enough, much less research and writing a thesis.

Yeah. [My husband and I] got married at the end of my fourth year in Grad school. And so, we knew we wanted to have a kid, and realized that since I was finishing all my lab and field work, that it was the perfect time. And it worked great. So I was pregnant when I was writing my dissertation. And there was a deadline. I had a scheduled C-Section because I'm married to a guy that’s 6'5"—different story—and my kid was tall and had a big head that freaked out the doctor. [Everyone laughs] The doctor was not going to go through this naturally. So she scheduled a C-Section, which was perfect, because I knew that date ahead of time, and I could submit my thesis to my committee. I made that my goal. But like most people, I think, if you give me a deadline, I'll work until the very last minute, to tinker with it. So, I pressed send a little after 1 a.m. on March 10, 2006, and by 5:00 p.m., our son was born. [Everyone laughs]

What was that evening like, finalizing your thesis, knowing your baby was arriving so soon afterwards?

This is the memory I have—the vision in my head—when I think about this moment: we used to live in this townhouse in Berkeley, at the student housing. And my mom had come to help us—this was our first baby, right. So she was staying with us to make sure she was there for every step of the process. My husband and my mom were sitting across this dining table, and I’m on the other end with my laptop. And she’s doing everything in her power to not show me how stressed she is about the situation. She had 6 kids. She clearly understands how uncomfortable these positions I have to sit in for long periods of time are. She’d bring something to put my legs up and provide water, or tea, or whatever. And they're sitting, just waiting until I actual press send. They're like, "Just leave it alone now. Go to bed. Tomorrow's a big day." And at 1:00 a.m. they finally...

… They're sitting there, kinda like...

... waiting for me to finish and press send. [Everyone laughs] But the nice thing is: it's done, right. The next morning we move on to just having a baby. It was an incredible deadline. And it worked great. The first few months of the postdoc and editing the thesis and submitting it were obviously tough because then I had to care for a baby, and I had to write, and I had to start a new postdoc. But thankfully my husband and I had always tried to help each other through things like this. We both do the same job. It helps that we understand the demands of each other's job. And it worked. There were moments in there that are pretty crazy, but...

... And you have two children now.

We have two. A boy and a girl.

I’ve read that they want to be scientists.

That’s true. That’s still true.

Is that through influence from Mom and Dad?

Probably has a lot to do with it. [Laughter] One thing that we have tried to do with them is to instill in them something that was instilled in us early on… a love of knowledge, and reading, and just exploring. They both like to read a lot and learn about the environment around them. And as a consequence, they’ve both expressed strong desires at this point to be scientists and engineers, who do all sorts of stuff.

... you must see yourself in your children.

I do.

Didn't you also have a love for books growing up?

I loved reading and I still do.

Did your parents influence your love for reading?

I think reading had a lot to do with our parents—both of them read a lot. And, in particular my dad maintained a fairly big library at home and read anything that he came across—anything that he found. He just loved reading. It's like he woke up and the first thing he did was either listen to the news or read. So to him, knowing about the world around you and getting as much knowledge as possible about a variety of topics was something that he lived by. And in the same manner with my mom, she still reads a lot. And that was definitely an influence that they intentionally tried to pass on to us. And something that we enjoyed clearly. And, all my siblings read a lot to this day. I mean, that was definitely an intentional thing on their part, trying to influence us to read. Because the idea there is—and I think the same principle holds with our children—if they can just appreciate how amazing it is that you can read a book and learn... then there's little else that could stand in their way… for their future.

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Current Status & Academics

Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is currently an associate professor of soil biogeochemistry at University of California, Merced, a faculty affiliate of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, an inaugural member of the National Academies' New Voices in Science, Engineering and Medicine (SEM), co-investigator of ADVANCEGeo, on the leadership board for Earth Science Women's Network (ESWN), and on the advisory board for 500 Women Scientists. Asmeret holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biogeochemistry from University of California, Berkeley, a Master of Science in political ecology from Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, and a Bachelor of Science in soil and water conservation from University of Asmara, in Asmara, Eritrea.