Science & engineering fellow, U.N. youth delegate advocates for diversity in the sciences

Aria Mia Loberti and Ingrid at the UN Women’s headquarters in NYC

For Aria Mia Loberti, cultural diversity encompasses the full spectrum of life experiences. A sophomore in the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS), Loberti is one of twenty-three undergraduate students in the Science and Engineering Fellows Program this year, and the only one with a four-legged sidekick.

Loberti is a passionate advocate for the legally blind and visually impaired, such as herself. “If we started looking at disability as cultural diversity instead of disadvantage we would have a much better planet,” says the centennial scholar.

In addition to advocating at the local and state levels, Loberti also takes her efforts to the international stage, representing the United States as the first legally blind Youth Delegate at the United Nations Youth Assembly. In February 2016 Loberti began her tenure, working to advance Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals, Equal Rights for Women. That same month she also earned the title of U.N.’s Outstanding Youth.

Loberti continues to work as part of the U.N. Women Interagency Task Force on Youth and Gender Equality, where she advances policies that integrate more women in STEM fields, particularly women of different backgrounds and abilities. “There are so many voices that do not get heard, and I am totally remiss if I don’t use my voice to help others,” says Loberti, whose work with the U.N. also involves developing new activist student organizations on college campuses, and strengthening academic research on women with disabilities.

Since she was seven years old, Loberti experienced first-hand what it means not to have a voice in an education system that denied her equal rights. “I was told that there was no point in accommodating my needs in a math setting because, ‘What’s a blind girl going to do with math,’” Loberti reflects on the challenges she and her family faced throughout her primary and secondary schooling.

Growing up with a genetic eye condition fueled both her curiosity in the sciences and Loberti’s desire to communicate her legal rights as a disabled youth. “I figured out pretty early on that I’m interested in science because of its interactions with policy and the way we communicate,” says the Biology, Communications, and Political Science triple major.

In looking for an opportunity to conduct research at URI, Loberti says the Science and Engineering Fellows Program was the best fit, allowing her to combine all of her academic interests in a diverse cultural setting. “The program fit me so much better because of what it seeks with people from different backgrounds and life experiences, and really nurturing that,” offers Loberti.

Launched in 2012 in partnership between the College of the Environment and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, the Science and Engineering Fellows Program fosters the development of research skills in undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds, and prepares students with the professional skills and training needed to succeed in the job market.

Throughout the 14 week-long fellowship, which provides students with housing on campus and a summer stipend, fellows work with faculty mentors in their area of interest to gain hands-on experience performing research in fields ranging from molecular biology to biomedical engineering.

Working 30-hours a week over the summer, Loberti and her peers also engaged in social networking events and professional development workshops on resume writing and interview skills. During the fall semester the fellows enroll in a course that enables them to effectively communicate their research to public audiences, in preparation for the December poster presentation where they will showcase their projects.

Fontes-Barros with a group of the 2017
Science & Engineering Fellows

“This fellowship caters to students who have had little or no research experience, and helps to connect them with their peers to create a community that supports each other,” says Michelle Fontes-Barros, Assistant Director of Student Diversity Initiatives for CELS and coordinator for the Science and Engineering Fellows Program. Over the past five years the program has supported more than 75 fellows, including students from Puerto Rico, and continues to grow each year.

Together with her trusty sidekick and guide dog, Ingrid, by her side, Loberti collaborated with Assistant Professor Dr. Bryan Dewsbury in the Department of Biological Sciences, where she worked to revamp the Principles of Biology honors course. “We’re focusing more on helping students understand the material rather than memorizing it,” Loberti explains of the course changes, which aim to provide an even deeper discovery-based approach for students.

Loberti not only assisted with the redesign of the introductory biology class and lab, but this fall she has the unique opportunity to witness the impact of her work as a teaching assistant for the course. Throughout the semester Loberti will be running an experiment to see how well students can apply quantitative skills to biological principles. “Being able to say I’m part of this experiment right from its inception and straight through to the end, which not a lot of the fellows can say, is really exciting,” she adds.

At the conclusion of the fellowship in August, Loberti and Ingrid traveled to New York City to participate in the 14th annual International Human Rights Summit, where the youth delegate addressed representatives from more than 50 countries at the U.N. headquarters.

Whether it is in academia or in the policy sphere, Loberti hopes to continue advocating for diversity and equity in the sciences. “I think one of the most important steps our domestic and internationally focused governments can take is integrating science and policy, making science accessible to everyone.”