This week’s #WCWinSTEM is Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a biogeochemist with a passion for STEM education, advocacy, inclusion, and valuing nature, especially soils!
As compiled by Léolène Carrington, Ph.D.
We are honored to have Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe tell us her story as this week’s #WCWinSTEM. Given the body of her publication records and her leadership role at the National Academies(!!), we know there’s lots to learn from her!
Responses may be edited for content and brevity.
Where/when did you go to school?
B.Sc. Soil and Water Conservation, University of Asmara – Eritrea
M.Sc. Resource Development (Political Ecology), Michigan State University
Ph.D. Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
What do you do right now?
Currently I am an Associate Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced. I also serve on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network and am currently the chair of the U.S. National Committee on Soil Science at the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
What made you choose your STEM discipline in the first place?
I always loved science. From an early age, I loved learning and had early fascination with science. I was that kid who loves reading books that are above her level (including my older sibling’s textbooks), and wants to explain it to everyone. My parents growing up highly encouraged my siblings and I to read a lot, and they provided a variety of books for us to read all the time. After observing my love of reading, learning, and explaining what I learned to others, my father gave me the nickname ‘the Professor’ when I was very young. Knowing that my parent’s believed I can grow up to be a professor, and them doing everything in their power to ensure that I excelled in school, all the way through PhD probably made the most difference in allowing me to choose the field that I was passionate about and pursue a career in STEM, against any kind of odds that I faced along my educational journey. When I started college, I planned to study chemistry before pursuing medical school; but, a course in Soil Science changed my mind very quickly. Learning about the exciting world of soils, all the ecosystem services that we (human beings) derive from the soil system — and just how incredibly diverse, dynamic, and exciting soils are — made me change my undergraduate major, and I have been studying soils ever since.
I still remain fascinated by the amazing world of soils, even 25 years after I started learning about the world under our foot.
Any piece of advice you wish you had when you started your STEM journey?
Always remember that the ability to persist and keep working in the face of challenges is one of the most important qualities of a successful researcher.
- Find good peer and senior mentors early
- Be an active member of your scientific community always
- Develop networks and skills you need to be part of and lead team science activities.
Do you have any woman of color in STEM sheros? Who and why?
I didn’t have too many WOC in STEM sheros/role models when I went to school or during the early parts of my academic journey. But, more recently, I have come to know and interact with quiet a few, largely thanks to social media, especially Twitter. I have now found a community of people on social media that share my background, experiences, and are open to giving me advice on my academic journey.
What else are you passionate about?
Spending time with my family, traveling and exploring new places, and reading.
Why do you think it’s important to highlight women of color in STEM?
I think it is extremely important to highlight women of color in STEM to ensure that the younger generation finds role models, and get a chance to imagine themselves in our positions. When I started my PhD, I didn’t have such role models in my field or university. I was one of over 250 graduate students in our program. In my first year, I found out that, at the time, I was the only black student in my program, and soon found out that the only black woman faculty in the program was leaving the University. These two pieces of information and the reality of being the only one around, with no one that shared my background or experiences, shocked me. It made me doubt my place in the program and in academia. Finding other people who looked like me in the University and in my field was instrumental. Since becoming a professor, and seeing this from the side of a now mid-career STEM Professor, it is also clear that too many #WOCinSTEM have remained hidden figures in the academy, and other research and educational arenas.
Highlighting the successes of WOC in STEM can have profound implications for the career choices and success of young WOC, the next generation that we hope to recruit and retain in STEM fields.
I believe the reason why I kept my eyes on the ball and worked hard in school had a lot to do with the personal role models that I have had in my life. In particular, both my parents came from very modest backgrounds, and went to college while supporting their parents, siblings, and later their kids financially and in every way that counts. My father, with all the responsibility that he had for his family, became a famed soccer star and earned two degrees in political science and law. He went on to become a very successful teacher, then banker before earning his law degree and becoming a lawyer and law professor. My mother, who had similar financial responsibilities for her family early on, went to college after they got married, had SIX! kids all while she had a full time job. Getting her degree part time took 7 years but she got remarkable grades and went on to become a very successful businesswoman. This meant that whenever things got tough in my educational journey, I tried to imagine how hard it must have been for the two people that I admire most in this world, who truly got to where they did against so many odds. Being able to draw on the strength of role models like that is priceless. My two most important role models were not in STEM, but they influenced my educational journey more than anyone else. Role models make all the difference in the world.
I was able to imagine I would be successful from an early age, because I can see what was possible when you work hard and keep pushing, against any challenges that might lay ahead.
Are there institutions, groups or organizations you would like to give a shoutout?
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?
My most important accomplishment in life are my two children, my joys.
Thank you Dr. Berhe, for your work in biogeochemistry. Now we can add your story of resolve to our examples of what success in STEM looks like. We hope to hear more about soil science now that you’re part of the #VSVillage!
*All images used with permission from Asmeret Asefaw Berhe.
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