Melissa Berke has known she wanted to be a geologist since she was a young outdoors enthusiast traveling from her parents’ home in Ohio to see relatives in New York.
“You pass all these beautiful road cuts in Pennsylvania, all these cool swirly-looking rocks,” she said. “I’m sitting in the backseat staring at that, wondering, ‘How the heck did that happen?’ It was wildly unpopular as a kid to be so interested in staring at rocks for the rest of your life.”
Berke, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, found her actual niche in graduate school when she discovered a field called paleoenvironmental change. Her molecular paleoclimatology and organic biogeochemistry lab uses chemical fossils, called biomarkers, found in sediments from lakes and oceans to reconstruct past climate and environmental change.
“Understanding the rate of change and changes in the earth system is important to understanding either what might come in the future or is happening today,” Berke said. “I always tell people that we’re the researchers who put all of this climate change talk into some sort of context.”
Berke was born in Brooklyn but moved with her parents to Ohio three years later. She was the first in her family to attend a four-year college — at Oberlin, a few hours from her home near Columbus — where she studied geology.
In graduate school at the University of California, Riverside, she was interested in paleontology (classic fossils) but was drawn to the study of environmental change. She also took a job at the U.S. Geological Survey doing work on the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Champlain.
“I couldn’t believe it was my second day on the job and I was on a speedboat collecting sediment samples, and I was like, ‘How is this a job?’” Berke said. She studied tiny carbonate shells in the mud to understand how the water chemistry changed in the past.
That experience changed her direction within geology, and she attended the University of Minnesota for her doctoral degree. “I really like this interdisciplinary approach that crosses biology, chemistry and geology,” she said. She spent two years afterward doing postdoctoral work at the University of Utah before coming to Notre Dame in 2013.
“I just had a really good gut feeling about the people that I met here,” Berke said of Notre Dame. “People here are very welcoming and really interested in trying to make connections to the things that they do.”
While her expertise began with large lakes, it has expanded to oceans and currents, such as a two-month trip aboard a research ship to collect core samples in the Indian Ocean. Her work begins in the field collecting core samples, continues in the lab analyzing the samples’ chemistry, and finishes in the office comparing data to climate models and publishing papers.
“We’re doing the micro things in the lab that feed into a regional scale view, linking them to global changes. I really like the scale of it, going from numbers-oriented details to big-picture spatial integration.”
The fieldwork often allows early access to the samples, which can mean lengthy international trips and large scientific collaborations at times controlled by weather or equipment availability. She’s worked around the world, from Finland and Greenland to all over eastern Africa to Guatemala and South America.
“I do this stuff that needs a physical thing — I need mud to work on,” she said. “You have to put a whole bunch of irons in the fire — things that you and your students are really interested in and that you think will make a difference — and then see what actually ends up happening.”
Berke said paleoclimate study is integral to understanding climate change because it provides “boundary parameters to models that are making them better at reconstructing what happened in the past and ultimately forecast into the future.”
The pandemic interruptions of the last few years put travel on hold and reminded Berke that she prizes the variety inherent in her teaching and research.
“We’re doing the micro things in the lab that feed into a regional scale view, linking them to global changes,” she said. “I really like the scale of it, going from numbers-oriented details to big-picture spatial integration.
“I love writing papers and writing grants is nice, but really working with students, interacting with my colleagues, the travel and then the lab work, all of that packaged together is really what makes this job what it is.”
Berke has also taken students on international service trips. Former department chair Joannes Westerink once asked Berke if she’d like to go to Cameroon, and from that trip, she ended up becoming the faculty mentor for the Notre Dame chapter of Engineers without Borders.
The group built a pump water well in Cameroon and water towers in Ecuador, as well as education programs around clean water. Though she believes her climate research is a help to humanity, she appreciates the direct applicability of the projects.
“This is going out and watching the students directly interact with the communities,” she said. “I love seeing the students translating their classroom knowledge into community-based understanding.”
In the past, Berke said she was sometimes the only woman in a room full of geologists, but she believes parity in the field is growing. She said she couldn’t fail to notice women dropping out of companies and academics “as you go up in the ranks.”
“Maybe it’s a thick skin, and maybe it’s just putting on the blinders and getting stuff done, but I’m too stubborn to let it stop me,” she said.
Looking forward, she’s most excited about an upcoming long-term project to take core samples from Lake Victoria that will allow a complete history of the lake. She was in Tanzania in January to scout out the best locations for sediment core samples.
She said she’s in the sweet spot of her career for a project that could take a decade or more. “You have to be established enough to not need this work to get done immediately, but young enough to see it out,” Berke said.