Successful CELS Alum Shares Inclusive Science Lens with URI

By: Sarah Schechter, Communications Fellow

Asta Habtemichael

“Creating a community where everyone feels included and has a space to share and exchange experiences is one of the things that I work on here at URI,” says CELS alum Asta Habtemichael. With a background in marine sciences and policy, coupled with a passion for diversity, equity & inclusion, he is pursuing a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Oceanography and contributes to support systems designed to aid students of color throughout the URI community. “I think that the main challenge, especially as a person of color when you come into a predominantly white institution, is navigating and understanding the system,” Habtemichael remarks.

He has been a URI student since 2017 and says he has experienced gaps in the system that he was able to fill himself. Habtemichael has made it a priority to develop and further programs that make transitions easier for underrepresented students in STEM. He uses a breadth and depth of knowledge accumulated through his schooling and overall love of learning to identify the needs of students and encourage changes in the system. This includes a mentorship position with CELS Seeds of Success, membership with the CELS Diversity Committee, and in co-leading Voices of Inclusion in Communities of Education and Science.

Habtemichael recognizes that not every student is comfortable taking such an active role in improving the systems to support students, but he felt it was an important thing for him to do. “It’s all dependent on my choice and my understanding to be vulnerable and to put myself out there,” he said.

Born and raised in Eritrea, Habtemichael grew up in a family that prioritized and supported his education. “I think I consider myself to be an everlearning student,” he says.

After years of success in his academic career, he was selected to attend the College of Marine Science and Technology in Mitsiwa, Eritrea, where he earned a B.S. in Applied Marine Science in 2011. During his second year of undergrad, he found a love for marine and environmental pollution research, recalling that “It wasn’t something I chose, but I think it was a calling.” After graduation, he transitioned into a role as a teaching and research fellow at the College of Marine Science and Technology and later joined a consultancy office where he focused on environmental impact assessment work and found a passion for environmental policy work.

He started researching graduate programs that included policy and ocean science components and was accepted into the CELS Marine Affairs Program. After graduating with a master’s degree and a Graduate Certificate in GIS (Geographic Information System) and Remote Sensing in 2019, Habtemichael decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Biological and Environmental Sciences in CELS and Chemical Oceanography at the Graduate School of Oceanography, but a change in advising altered his path. As a result, he decided to consolidate his Ph.D. work focusing on the bioaccumulation of per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under the guidance of Dr. Rainer Lohmann at the Graduate School of Oceanography. PFAS compounds, sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” are an emerging contaminant in water systems in Rhode Island and across the U.S. Having already completed courses in CELS, Habtemichael decided to pursue a Master’s of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) concurrently. “The MESM program was supportive,” he mentions alongside praises and appreciation for the program advisors, who helped to ease his transition.

When reflecting on his academic career, Habtemichael also notes that “URI has a good tradition of celebrating and recognizing students’ efforts and also staff members and faculty.” Recently he was awarded the Graduate Research Enhancement Award, the Thomas & Kathy J. McNiff Graduate Student in Marine Sciences, and the DWELL Lab Science Award. His recognitions go beyond those at URI including his induction into the American Association of Colleges and Universities inaugural cohort of Future Leaders Society for being a finalist for the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award and as a recipient of the Switzer Fellowship. As a part of the 20 students selected for the Switzer Fellowship cohort, Habtemichael receives research funding for one year and access to a network of over 700 environmental leaders.

On track to graduate from his Ph.D. program in 2024, he plans to look into careers that have an intersection of science and policy. Habtemichael would also like the opportunity to continue sharing his knowledge base on inclusive scientific approaches. “As much as I enjoy learning, I also enjoy teaching,” he said. He is unsure of the exact path ahead but plans to consider national and international sectors, keeping in mind the need to be vulnerable and challenge the system.