May 8, 2020
Dr. Asmeret Berhe is a soil biogeochemist and the Falasco Endowed Chair in Earth Sciences at the University of California at Merced. Join me in learning about the brave ways Dr. Berhe has shown up for science by making hard decisions and refusing to be pushed out. Learn more about Dr. Berhe's research, watch her TED talk on soil mitigation, and watch her Story Collider on growing up and loving science in a war torn region.
Dr. Kate Clancy: Okay, so welcome to yet another round of ‘Ask a Courageous Scientist.” I am going to be asking the same three questions I’ve been asking of everybody and I have been really enjoying the variety of answers that I have been getting from some really astounding scientists. Today I am joined by Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe She is a Soil Biogeochemist at the University of California Merced and a full professor over there. (She) Does some amazing work on climate change and I am going to be asking her our three questions today.
So, thanks for joining me.
Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe: Well, thank you for having me Kate.
Clancy: So on to our very first question: What brought you to science?
Berhe: So I was, you know, that nerdy kid who liked to read and loved to learn about everything. Through books and talking to folks and listening to radio as a child. I grew up in a household where reading was encouraged a lot. And listening to the radio so that you know about the world, BBC World, when I grew up for example, that was what we listened to in particular with my dad. And I think that just got me into trying to learn more and more things and I grew up, kind of, liking to learn new things not just liking to read, not just my own textbooks but the textbooks of my older siblings. And from time to time I would try to explain it to them, (Laughs) what is in their textbooks, as well as that could go as you can imagine for my younger siblings. They were mad. And that just made things, learning, exciting and interesting to me. So I grew up with the idea that I loved learning, I loved to learn about the natural environment around me and, kind of, that was basically, if you were, my gateway towards learning. And times afterwards I realized, in particular in high school, that I really liked science, in particular chemistry and I was good at it and physics and biology. I had amazing teachers that encouraged, that… you know kind of desire to learn too as well as my parents.
And the combination of really getting excited by figuring out new things and learning, you know, new things about the world, that I did not realize were there before. And the fact that I could read and even get more out of that experience, the encouragement from both my parents and the teachers that I had kind of set me on a course to study science. I sought out to study chemistry as a pre-med on the undergraduate level until I studied soil science which was the new thing that I found when I came to college. I really didn’t know too much about soil before then. All of those meant that I got hooked. I realized that not only is this stuff interesting, but it’s also exciting and I found things that I could learn… new things, over and over again. And that just made the learning process exciting for me and science became something that I just fell in love with. And I’ve been learning science since then for a long period of time.
For context, where I learned science early on was in Eretria where I was born and raised in East Africa. And it was not easy to necessarily keep focusing on science at the time that I grew up because there was an act of war going on. And so my education had to go on at a time where there was an active armed conflict happening right outside the capital city where I grew up. People’s lives and family’s lives were being interrupted left and right because of war and the combination of family members disappearing because they were getting arrested or God knows what or going out of the town to join the independent struggle. Some leaving the country, exiled to save themselves from what was going on. So there was a lot of disruption happening in the lives of people around us at the time. And so, I think in some ways the idea that my parents kind of brought us into this, that whatever we do in life, we need to be thinking about school and life because that’s about the only wealth, especially in this kind of climate, that the only guaranteed life, path in life is education to take you somewhere. Because you can’t trust anything like wealth or connections. Even peace, as we worked on kind of getting a demonstration in real life at the time that I grew up and they tried to reinforce on us just focus on your school. Whatever you do, try and not lose focus on that school because that’s the only way that… guaranteed way that your life can be set on a good trajectory and a good course for the rest of your life. I think I took that to heart and, in some ways it was also an escape. Learning about school and science was an escape from the reality that was happening right around us. In many ways, science served as a distraction but also a motivating factor of, ‘This has to change’ and something has to be different in our lives and hopefully we can focus on education for a change. And that worked out so that was, kind of my path to science. Loved it because of early influences. If I had to sum it up I would say books, teachers, and parents especially and in spite of everything else that was going on around us those three held, and the interested persisted.
Clancy: That’s amazing. That might be the most beautiful answer I’ve gotten so far. So thank you so much for sharing that. Can you tell me one way that you’ve shown courage in science?
Berhe: I’ll tell you about courage that I feel like I’ve shown in science, I’ll switch gears and I will not be talking about my early education right now, but rather what happened when I grew up, completed my bachelors in Eretria and moved to the U.S., received a Masters at Michigan State and then moved to the West to pursue a PhD in Biogeochemistry at Berkeley, U.C. Berkeley. And I’ll tell you about that time because one thing I never, kind of, I was naïve and kind of didn’t appreciate as much was how different I would be from everybody else that was in such a big school and the most progressive and most liberal part of the country.
Even there so I ended up being as far as I could tell, to this day I could never get my hands on data to confirm or deny this but, as far as I could tell, the only black student that was at that school at the department, so our large interdisciplinary department and graduate students… the only black person for a while. That kind of can give you an impression, it was a very interesting time where most of the people interacted fine with you obviously they minded their own business and everybody’s busy in grad school anyway. But there was at least one person that constantly made it his mission to undermine me and say all sorts of negative things. I wanted to work with this person so I tried to basically bury everything that was happening saying, ‘I don’t need to be friends with this person but they’re a really good scientist. I want to be able to work with them so I am just going to bite my tongue, do whatever they want me to do.’
It went on like that for two years. All sorts of messed up statements and actions that was taken on part of that person. Until I realized, I think it took a long time but it became clear to me that this person did not want me in that environment. And everything that they did to undermine my presence there, to undermine the fact that I was even admitted to the program, over the years cumulated into a final effort to basically, in front of audience, in front of other professors say extremely terrible things to suggest that I don’t belong there. It made it very clear that I do not belong there because I got my bachelors in Africa. Who did I think I was to just come to Berkeley and be able to get a PhD from this department. It’s just not how it should work the people should just not come from my part of the world and be part of this system that they created.
That one was almost one of the kind of toughest times in my life especially since it happened at a critical moment in my PhD. And I felt myself just giving up. Just ready to give up and the very least leave that department and find another institution that I could complete my PhD because it became very clear that it was not worth it. This whole psychological toll that this interaction with this individual was taking on me was not worth it. So it required everything that I had and the amazing support of other mentors that I got at that time, new ones and family members and friends to get me to hold on… to just wait, give myself time to not rush into just withdrawing and leaving at that time. And I feel like that was probably what required the most courage because it was, you know, this had already happened two years of continuous and multiple versions of abuse and harassment at the hands of this individual and there were multiple things that were said and done privately and even in the presence of other individuals. I think the combination of all of those things, at the time, made it near impossible for me to stay. I couldn’t quite see what was the point of trying to do a PhD if it was going to cost me my sanity and if I had to continuously be fighting this person and this attitude that I didn’t belong. And there’s nothing that I can do t change where I came from. The only thing I figured I could do was show this individual that I was willing to work hard, I’m willing to do the work that I need to do to earn the degree and advance as I should. But, as you could imagine, this was incredibly hard. I basically decided at some point that he was not worth it. Let’s just move on, find another place to go to. And I think it took a lot of courage for me to be able to recognize that I had reached my limit obviously at this point. But thankfully I had just, you know, had found a new mentor that I was talking to that was willing to just be, say, ‘I recognize this is terrible. No one should be in this position, but let’s not let it ruin the path that you’re in. Let’s figure out a way out of this.’
And my partner, at that time, my boyfriend, who is my husband now who was with me when I went through a lot of it basically said the same thing. It took a couple of friends who saw the toll that it was taking but also how these incremental statements kind of, and actions had reached a critical point as far as how much I could take with concern. And basically, all of them making a plea to me to just hold on, just let it, process it, this is terrible but don’t make any rushed statements. Don’t leave the campus just yet. And I feel like that obviously made a difference, the fact that I stayed ended up being a really good thing because the new mentor that I found ended up being incredibly supportive. He is, to this day, as well as the other two mentors that I got. I ended up having a three-person advising team. That worked beautifully in my favor. That still continues to work beautifully but I think if I, that staying, the deciding to actually give those things a chance though, to me, it felt like it took everything that I had to stay in that environment where, granted a minority, but a member of that community, has made it clear that I don’t belong. And said so in so many words in front of their colleagues. It was incredibly hard to process that emotion. And the fact that it was also sad to realize, even over the years after that, that I couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of this individual. But there were still, and it’s not like this individual started with me. There was record of all sorts of interesting actions and statements but, whatever I do felt like I can’t prove to people that I’m worthy of being in that environment. But a simple statement from this individual carried a huge weight to get me to be perceived as somebody who is unworthy, who is there with all sorts of shading. You know mechanisms, I don’t even know what those are at that point, but in their eyes, and in his eyes, I didn’t belong there because of my background. Somehow, I slipped in, and that was wrong. The fact that I slipped in through the admission process and whatever I did, didn’t seem to make a difference. In fact every, agreement that I had afterwards ended up being a trigger for yet another action for either that individual or people directly connected to him, in particular a couple of people. Even though there was this whole environment that I had, a community of friends, new advisors, you know, a couple of people, in particular one, made it their mission to make my life so difficult in science. And to this day it makes me upset when I think about these things because it required everything I had to hold on. To be able to stay and not leave that program. So if I were to think about, ‘When did I show courage?’ it’s to listen to the positive voices in my life, and regardless of what was happening to just hold on. And that act of holding on and not, kind of, making a rushed decision… well I guess it’s not necessarily fair to call it a rushed decision because it happened over a couple of years (Laughs). But still to make that decision and just get out of there… was probably the most courageous one I could think of.
Clancy: Absolutely, no I couldn’t agree more. I mean that fact that you showed up every day while dealing with all of that abuse… and the fact that you did. So many people think that the wisest thing is to stick it out in the abusive situation and it does so much courage and fortitude and it’s so difficult. It’s a difficult path to change mentors… and you did it. That’s amazing. So I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad that you did it and I’m so glad you’re here.
Berhe: Yeah changing was the best decision but it’s funny because it’s happened because I tried to report the individual that was just going… I had enough of the harassment and I tried to take formal steps to report the harasser, but his department colleague who was in charge of graduate students, who was appointed to look after the welfare of graduate students, just… she didn’t want to hear me. She didn’t want to hear this at all and so she kept dismissing me saying, ‘You’re not really saying anything. You’re not really reporting anything,’ even as I’m telling her, exactly the way I’m telling you. One thing I will give her credit for though is when I told her, ‘I really don’t know what to do,’ she named the individual who actually ended up being my advisor and said, ‘Have you talked to him? He tends to be a fairly reasonable person.’ And that folks can work with him, folks from very different scientific areas and backgrounds seemed to work with him totally fine. He was a little outside my field so he wasn’t necessarily someone that I thought about. But after my conversation with her, even though I was crushed by the fact that she didn’t want to hear me… she didn’t even want me to report this. It was kind of, you know, weird but at least the lead to the positive idea of reaching out to this other professor who ended up being… just exactly what you want. The advisor to be. And that was probably the best decision I made. Another great decision because if didn’t reach out to him and he didn’t agree to advise me going forward from that path then definitely, there would not have been a path for me to stay there.
Clancy: So then that leads me to my final question which is: What do you want others to know about how to be a courageous scientist?
Berhe: I think a few things that I think that everybody should no is: One, accept the fact that it sucks to go through something like this. It sucks to have somebody question you and your background and your integrity and denigrate you day in and day out. And everything that you do to be questioned and everything that you are and you integrity and everything to be put into question and your hard work, devalued… it sucks. And I think it’s important to recognize that as a human being. It sucks to go through something like this. But if I were to advise anybody to think through situations like this, what I would say is: one, make sure you surround yourself with supportive people. There is no substitute for that. There are plenty of people doing amazingly good science and there are plenty turns that science can take. And so it’s fine even if you don’t stick to exactly the scientific path you started out with because I think your welfare is way more important. I would choose a healthy climate, a low pace climate, and a healthy advising arrangement over anything. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth to lose your sanity and… you know kind of your health to suffer in so many ways trying to stay in environments like this. None of their credentials and accolades as ‘big deal’ scientists matter, at the end of the day, to you if they drive you insane. That’s, kind of, what I put myself through initially because I was naïve right?
I told myself that, ‘I don’t need him to be my friend.’ I just need to work with this incredible scientist who had accomplished so much and so I took the abuse and it escalated over time but I took it in all sorts of different ways because this person started doubting my… me in like the first five minutes. Doubting me in like the first five minutes of our interaction. Five minutes after we met he questioned my record and told me to take introduction to soil science if I wanted to stay in that program. And I say, ‘I got a bachelors in soil science… I actually was near the top of my class when I got a bachelors in soil science. Why would I need to take introduction?’ And he’s like ‘But this is Berkeley, its taught differently in Africa. And I’m like, ‘How do you know what I learned in Africa?’ Like what do you know about introduction… imagine having so much arrogance thinking an introduction to soil science course at Berkeley is not equivalent to even a bachelors degree at any other part of the world. I feel like that should have been a good clue right? But I just tried to ignore that.
I tried to ignore so many things over the years so listen to that nagging voice in your head if there is, if there seems to be something wrong, do not ignore it, do not try to bury it. Surround yourself with the right community and it is okay to fall apart. Hopefully you have surrounded yourself with people that can pick you up at the time that you need support but it should be okay because I think maybe because I was pretty open about how broken up I was about this whole process and how sad I was about what was going on, I ended up finding incredible, not just mentors that provided the support that I needed but also friends. And a partner that saw exactly how much this affected me and where they are to provide the support that I needed at that time, in particular, the community that I needed at that time to have a positive community of people that did not have, that did come with those biases and baggage of opinions that clearly just one individual did and recognize that just one person is all it takes to do a lot of damage. You don’t need a large number of harassers or racists or misogynists to create a problem for underrepresented folks, all it takes is one. And hopefully our institutions recognize that and because we are able to do something about that one individual then hopefully not so many people have to keep suffering under one individual.
Clancy: I couldn’t agree more. You know a lot of my research on harassment, one of the things that appalls me is when people push me on my methods or try to say that the percentages of some population I have been looking at are not that high, then I’ll say but… forty percent harassment, twenty percent, eighty percent harassment… these are all bad numbers because they’re greater than zero. Like… they don’t….
Berhe: (Laughs) Exactly.
Clancy: What’s the minimal acceptable quantity? I don’t think that… I don’t think a non-zero number is acceptable because of the way, like you said one person can just do so much damage. Thank you for saying that and for prioritizing a healthy climate and telling our listeners how important it is to listen to yourself too. And I’m glad that you listened to your voice cause I’m glad you’re here.
Berhe: Thank you. Appreciate that.
Clancy: Thank you so so so much. I really appreciate this.
Berhe: You’re welcome. I hope it’s useful, appreciate it. Thank you for doing this.
Clancy (Outro): Thanks for joining me for the courageous scientist podcast. Like I said, this is a short-term passion project to keep me sane during the pandemic so, I don’t want your money. Please do tell budding scientists and educators of all ages about the podcast because I think they’ll like it. And if you have the means send a few bucks the way of your local foodbank, thanks for listening.