Remembering Longtime and Esteemed Columbia Scientist and Mentor Cheryl Palm
The Columbia Climate School is deeply saddened to share news of the passing of Cheryl Palm, who was at Columbia University from 2003 to 2016. An acclaimed and adventurous scientist, nurturing and caring spirit, and life-changing mentor and friend, Cheryl pioneered new approaches to improve the environment and food security. Her work also identified practical solutions for complex challenges, while building science and human capacity through her commitment to others.
Cheryl joined Columbia in 2003, bringing decades of experience working in tropical agriculture. At the university, she was a senior research scientist in the Earth Institute’s Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program and later at the Agriculture and Food Security Center based on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory campus. She was also a key team member for the Millennium Villages Project, which aimed to address poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
Generose Nziguheba was one of Cheryl’s postgraduate fellows in Kenya in 1995 who later came to work with her at Columbia from 2008 on that project. “Cheryl was passionate about research and people’s welfare. She was cheerful and supportive to everybody, regardless of their position. Thirteen years later, when I joined her team at Columbia University, I found the same hard-working and inspiring Cheryl, believing in the potential of her team, and responsive to the needs of everyone.”
Cheryl’s investigations focused on ecosystem processes in tropical agricultural landscapes under land-use change, degradation and rehabilitation. Her research produced the first science-based quantification of the release of plant nutrients from organic sources, such as leaves and manures, and an extensive quantification of carbon and biomass losses due to tropical deforestation and sequestration by alternative systems in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, Indonesia and the Congo Basin. Because of her outstanding research, she was elected a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Agronomists.
“Cheryl’s enthusiasm for soil inspired so many scientists throughout the world. She especially loved nurturing young scientists. Her spark, smile and quick wit will long be remembered by all of us who had the good fortune to know her,” said Ruth DeFries, chief academic officer and co-founding dean emerita at Columbia Climate School.
At Columbia, Cheryl built a team that loved being together and working together. She was a role model with her compassion and kindness, and her influence was steadfast and constant. Beyond the science and scholarship, she created a family among the many who worked with her and for her. With Pedro Sanchez, her husband and research partner, Cheryl was a generous host, and her staff enjoyed numerous parties, happy hours, birthday celebrations, baby showers and more. She insisted on a weekly happy hour for her group at Columbia, a regular event that continued for years. Cheryl never missed it.
“I first knew Cheryl as a mentor and scholar at the Earth Institute. She was fantastic in this role. And then, six months after starting to work with her in New York, I went to Kenya with her. And I saw something new—her delight talking to and learning from small farmers; her delight in a gin and tonic at the end of a dusty day; her delight in meeting junior colleagues and new students. And this delight was just marvelous to be around,” said Hope Michelson, Cheryl’s post-doctoral fellow from 2011 to 2013.
Cheryl’s work took her across the planet—to Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and many countries in Africa. She spent considerable time in Kenya, where she was principal research scientist of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Program from 1991 to 2001. She was deeply engaged with the rural communities where she worked, spending more time in these communities than in the classroom. She approached people with generosity, humility and humanity, interacting with smallholder farmers, listening to their challenges and suggesting solutions to improve their lives and livelihoods.
“Cheryl and I have been colleagues and friends for 30 years. She exemplifies visionary leadership in sustainable development through her work in large, complex science initiatives, such as the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Program, the ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins, and the Millennium Villages Project, among others,” said Thomas Tomich, founder of the Food Systems Lab and distinguished professor emeritus of Sustainability Science and Policy at University of California-Davis. “Cheryl’s brilliance, patience, warmth and earthy sense of humor endeared her to all involved. Plus, and this is key, we always had a lot of fun. We need more scientific leaders like Cheryl Palm.”
Cheryl mentored a generation of scientists. She was known for supporting and guiding graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Her students pursued a remarkable range of disciplines—economics, soil science, ecology and more—and Cheryl’s intellectual contributions carry on through these multitudes. “Cheryl was at the heart of a collaboration between a group of us that now spans nearly 20 years,” said Fabrice DeClerck, a former student who is now the director of science of the EAT Foundation. “I can’t imagine my career without that collaboration, and much credit goes to Cheryl for fostering the space for us to interact.”
Gillian Galford, a post-doctoral research fellow from 2010 to 2011, added: “Cheryl’s ability to find good people and to put her complete faith in them made us all feel special and appreciated. She supported us in every we needed, as scientists and as people. These two things—her faith in good people and mutual reciprocity—were her hallmarks of leadership and team building that I emulate every day. She affected our lives and, in turn, how we mentor our students.”
Cheryl will be deeply missed by all those who knew her as a collaborator, colleague and friend. “Her legacy continues to inspire others across our planet to advance her vital work,” said Tomich.