Born in Asmara, Eritrea, in northeast Africa, the daughter of a lawyer and a businesswoman, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe earned the nickname “The Professor” as a child because she was inseparable from her books. One of six children, she grew up in the 1980s during Eritrea’s decades-long war of independence from Ethiopia. Despite family upheaval (Berhe’s father was arrested twice and had to flee the country for a period of time), and being forced to switch schools, Berhe continued her education throughout the conflict.
Eritrea achieved its independence in 1991, during Berhe’s freshman year at the University of Asmara. Interrupting her studies to help meet the challenge of the newly independent nation’s teacher shortage, Berhe returned to her old high school to teach English. Graduating from college in 1996 with a BS in soil and water conservation, she was one of only three female students in her department. Berhe came to the United States in the late 1990s to pursue a master’s in political ecology from Michigan State University, an area of study influenced by her experience of growing up in a conflict zone. During her time at Michigan State, Berhe deepened her lifelong interest in the interaction between armed conflict and land degradation, focusing on the effects of post-war landmines on soil. She went on to receive a PhD in biogeochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied how soil stores carbon.
Today, Berhe is the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced. A leading political ecologist, Berhe has put soil at the center of the climate change debate. Even though soil may not get the same level of attention as rainforests, it is a larger captor of carbon than the entirety of the world’s vegetation. However, with half of the world’s soil already eroded, its ability to insulate humanity from the worst effects of climate change is diminishing. Berhe’s research on how damage from erosion, fires, and drought affects the storage of carbon is especially relevant in California, which in recent years has experienced some of the worst droughts and fires in the state’s history. And yet she is optimistic about society’s ability to meet the climate change challenge through better land management, including measures like reforestation and adding carbon to soil with compost. As Berhe explained in a 2019 TED Talk, “Soil … can help us combat climate change if we can only stop treating it like dirt.”
Berhe contributed to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which gauged the impact humans have on the environment, including serving as lead author of its chapter on “Drivers of Change in Ecosystems and Their Services.” That report, which was called for by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, won the Zayed International Prize for the Environment in 2005. Berhe’s other honors include the National Science Foundation CAREER Award. Among her many efforts to ensure more diversity in the science community, Berhe is part of the research team of the National Science Foundation-funded ADVANCEGeo Partnership, which addresses the issue of sexual harassment and other exclusionary behaviors in the earth, space, and environmental sciences. “The more diversity you have in science,” Berhe has said, “the better the quality of the science, and the more relevant science becomes to society.”