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Berhe Chosen for National Academy Membership in Recognition of Her Soil Research

February 9, 2023
Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, a soil biogeochemist, has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering for her research into climate change and soil sequestration.

Soil biogeochemistry Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe — who is on leave from UC Merced while she serves as federal director of the Office of Science for the Department of Energy — has been elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).

Election to the NAE is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer. Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to "engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature" and to "the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to engineering education," according to the announcement made this week.

“I’m honored to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering,” Berhe said. “I am so grateful for (her husband, fellow UC Merced Professor Teamrat Ghezzehei) and our lovely blessings, my parents, and my mentors and the incredible scientific community at UC Merced and beyond for the love and support over the years.”

Berhe is the second UC Merced faculty member to be elected to the NAE, joining materials science Professor Sarah Kurtz, who was elected to membership in 2020. Berhe was elected along with 105 other American members and 18 international members, bringing the total U.S. membership to 2,420 and the number of international members to 319.

She was chosen for her “understanding of soil carbon cycling and sequestration as related to land use and climate change,” the NAE said.

“A pioneer in soil science and climate change science and strong advocate for women in science, it is a well-deserved honor for Professor Berhe to be recognized as an NAE member,” UC Merced Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Economic Development Gillian Wilson said.

The NAE, formed in 1964, is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, along with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

The organization operates engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. The NAE is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the rest of the National Academies the role of advising the federal government.

NAE members represent a select group of national and international senior professionals in business, academia and government who volunteer their time on initiatives that help guide the development of federal laws and regulations, improve the effectiveness of government programs, shape the direction of research fields, and inform public knowledge and dialogue about issues of critical importance.

President Joe Biden nominated Berhe in April 2021 to lead the Office of Science and the U.S. Senate confirmed her the following month. Her current office is the lead federal agency supporting fundamental scientific research for energy and the nation’s largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences.

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 has served as interim associate dean for Graduate Education.

Her research is at the intersection of soil science, global change science and political ecology with an emphasis on how the soil system regulates the Earth’s climate and the dynamic two-way relationship between the natural environment and human communities.

Berhe was an invited speaker at the TED conference in 2019, and is known for her advocacy for inclusion, anti-harassment and anti-bullying. She previously served as the chair of the U.S. National Committee on Soil Science at the National Academies; was a leadership board member for the Earth Science Women’s Network; and is a co-principal investigator in the ADVANCEGeo Partnership — a National Science Foundation funded effort to empower (geo)scientists to respond to and prevent harassment, discrimination, bullying and other exclusionary behaviors in research environments. She is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, and a member of the inaugural class of the U.S. National Academies’ New Voices in Science, Engineering and Medicine. In 2020, she was named a Great Immigrant, Great American by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Berhe was born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea, and lives in Merced with her husband and their two children. She earned a B.Sc. in soil and water conservation from the University of Asmara, an M.Sc. in political ecology from Michigan State University and a Ph.D. in biogeochemistry from UC Berkeley. She joined UC Merced in 2009.