Senate Confirm Asmeret Berhe as Federal Office of Science Director

Originally from Eritrea, Prof. Asmeret Berhe becomes the first person of color to lead the Office of Science.

Prof. Asmeret Berhe is now the new Director of the Office of Science
The U.S. Senate today confirmed Prof. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe to be the new Director of the Office of Science in the Department of Energy. (Photo: UC Merced)

BY TESFANEWS*

The U.S. Senate today confirmed University of California, Merced Biogeochemist Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe to be the new director of the Office of Science in the federal Department of Energy.

President Joe Biden nominated Asmeret Berhe to the position last April.

With a $7 billion annual budget, the office is the federal government’s largest funder of fundamental research in the physical sciences.

Asmeret Berhe is a renowned Professor of soil Biogeochemistry in the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences in the School of Natural Sciences; the Ted and Jan Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences and Geology; and the interim associate dean for Graduate Education.

Her extensive research and expertise on the interactions between organic matter in the soil and environmental shifts such as climate change aligns with the Biden administration’s climate agenda as well as activities supported through the Office of Science’s Biological and Environmental Research program.

“It is an incredible honor for me to be nominated, and now confirmed by the U.S. Senate, to serve as President Biden’s director of the Office of Science at the Department of Energy,” Berhe said.

“I thank the president and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, for trusting me to help lead the next chapter in the great scientific success story of the Office of Science.”

Asmeret Berhe will serve in Washington, D.C., taking a leave of absence from campus. She will hold the director position for the duration of Biden’s term.

As soon as the 54-45 vote wrapped in the Senate, many in the campus community expressed their pride.

“This is fabulous news and so well deserved,” Interim Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Marjorie Zatz said. “Professor Berhe is highly respected as a researcher and thought leader by her colleagues nationally and internationally, as well as by those of us at UC Merced. She will be a terrific director for the Office of Science and a strong voice for inclusive excellence within the scientific community and beyond.”

“The School of Natural Sciences is immensely proud of Professor Berhe’s appointment to this important and influential office,” Dean Betsy Dumont said. “She is an immensely talented scientist who will bring a holistic, innovative and practical perspective to the challenges of energy and climate change.”

“Professor Berhe is an international leader in environmental sciences and climate change research, and a champion for underrepresented people in STEM,” Professor Peggy O’Day said. “We are excited by her appointment and the impact she will have on the national agenda in addressing energy and climate issues.”

Asmeret Berhe’s Career Shaped by Sense of Social Responsibility

Originally from Eritrea, Asmeret Berhe grew up during the country’s war of independence with Ethiopia. At an American Geophysical Union meeting in 2018, she reflected on how that experience shaped her career, beginning with her decision to study soil science at the University of Asmara after the war ended.

She further related that when she finished her degree in 1996, she decided to pursue advanced studies in political ecology at the University of Michigan, focusing on land degradation problems associated with landmines.

Asmeret Berhe observed that although most activism around the landmine issue focuses on the casualties they inflict, both exploded and unexploded landmines also have various effects that prevent productive use of the land. She remarked,

“As a scientist, then, when you’re doing this kind of work it’s extremely frustrating. I have no control over the kind of political forces that shape [issue] frameworks and movement agendas. But at least doing the kind of work that I did, I found it to be consequential more than anything that I’ve ever done as a scientist because at least I’m able to convey a message of how these relatively cheap, easily accessible, very widely used weapons cause very long-term environmental damage with significant consequences for societal and regional development.”

After receiving her master’s degree in 2000, Asmeret Berhe pursued doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, where she first began to focus on the relations between soil and climate change. During this time, she was also affiliated with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and the U.S. Geological Survey and undertook research at Pacific Northwest National Lab’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Lab, an Office of Science facility she has continued to use subsequently.

Asmeret Berhe received her doctorate in 2006 and pursued postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and UC Davis before taking on her current position at UC Merced. Since last year, she has also been serving as the interim associate dean of the UC Merced Graduate Division.

Combining her scientific work with speaking and writing for broader audiences, Dr. Asmeret Berhe has become an increasingly prominent figure. In 2018, the National Academies selected her as a member of its first cohort of New Voices in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Last year, the Carnegie Corporation named her as one of its Great Immigrants, an honor it awards annually to naturalized U.S. citizens for their contributions to “the progress of American society.”

Much of Prof. Asmeret Berhe’s outreach involves spotlighting the role that soil plays in sequestering atmospheric carbon and thus in affecting the pace of climate change. At a TED conference in 2019, she remarked, “A six-feet or so of loose soil material that covers the Earth’s surface represents the difference between life and lifelessness in the Earth system, and it can also help us combat climate change if we can only stop treating it like dirt.”

Asmeret Berhe’s efforts to promote diversity and equity have also increased in scale and prominence. Currently, she is a leading player in the ADVANCEGeo Partnership, a National Science Foundation-supported initiative to address sexual harassment and other abusive behaviors affecting the workplace climate in the Geosciences.

* UC Merced and AIP contributed to this story