Undergraduate research challenges society’s gender roles

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT student Ashley Aberg has traveled internationally to present her groundbreaking research on the ethical dilemmas facing intersex infants and their parents.

Ashley Aberg speaks with a conviction in her voice that immediately tells her listeners they’re about to be “wowed” by her intelligence, positive attitude and her implicit sense of self-actualization.

Aberg, a fourth-year philosophy major with minors in psychology and science, technology and society in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, has her eye on earning a master’s degree in bioethics and eventually a doctoral degree, hoping to eventually launch a teaching career at the university level. But it’s fair to say that Aberg, a New York City native, has already taught a thing or two to more than a few experts in her field.

Aberg’s independent-study research focuses on the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by parents of intersex infants—the population of about 2 percent of newborns who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomies that don’t fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having male sexual organs on the inside. According to Aberg, parents are being led by physicians to “make a choice for their child that often results in genital normalization surgery to correct the perceived abnormality.

“Many of these intersex individuals have had their pasts hidden from them to prevent them from being embarrassed or ashamed,” she adds. “This has caused suicides in extreme cases. Mistakes have been made with the best of intentions.”

Aberg advocates that the children be allowed to make their own decision on their sexuality when they are ready to do so, while utilizing qualified teams of psychologists and physicians along the way.

“Gender and sex are fundamentally social constructs,” says Aberg. “Society says that a normal person is either female or male. My question remains, ‘What does it mean to be normal?’ Normal doesn’t exist. We are all fractured identities—and that’s OK.”

Aberg’s “wow factor” ratcheted up a notch this past summer when she was honored as the sole undergraduate researcher to present her studies on intersex infants in Madrid, Spain, at the eighth biennial International Association for Studies of Sexuality, Culture and Society conference, and in November at Rochester’s prestigious TEDx Rochester conference for innovation.

“When I step up to the podium, I don’t think people take me seriously,” she says about her speaking engagements. “But I don’t doubt myself. I fully understand the scope of my research—my message. I’m very focused on what needs to be done.”

Deborah Blizzard, professor and chair of RIT’s science, technology and society/public policy program, has served as Aberg’s mentor and traveled with her to Madrid.

“Ashley is unique in that she is taking on a challenging topic and presenting her findings in locations and at events that few students with her age and experience would tread,” says Blizzard. “She has passion and composure. She will make a great professor one day.”

As for the “yin” to Aberg’s intensely focused research “yang,” she takes time out to relax by knitting—often during class lectures.

“The casual observer might not think that I’m retaining the information, but it’s actually quite the opposite. While my hands are busy, my mind is concentrated on the professor’s words. I can’t explain it, but it works for me.”

To round out Aberg’s lofty goals for the remainder of the academic year, she is helping to lead the RIT Hooks and Needles Club in knitting a wall comprised of 1,600 yarn bricks.