ORONO — Political science major Dominique DiSpirito of Woonsocket, Rhode Island is the 2022 University of Maine valedictorian and Maxwell Burtis of Brunswick, a mechanical engineering major, is this year’s salutatorian. Both are students in the UMaine Honors College.

“Dominique and Maxwell are truly outstanding members of our community and their UMaine student experiences are what the state’s R1 research university is all about,” says UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. “Both took advantage of UMaine’s breadth and depth to not only excel academically, but get engaged and make their own contributions.

“From her leadership in All Maine Women and her research in Acadia National Park and throughout Maine, to her work this summer in Washington, D.C. as a Truman Scholar, Dominique is making a difference in our university community and in the state. In addition to his numerous leadership roles on campus and research experiences that include the Juneau Icefield, Max tapped the Foster Innovation Center to help launch his oyster farm. We are incredibly proud of their achievements.”

DiSpirito is a political science major, with minors in legal studies, and ecology and environmental sciences. She is a 2021 Truman Scholar, and her other numerous collegiate honors include the 2021 Heart and Soul Campus Compact Award, and two Servant Heart Scholarships. 

Since 2019, DiSpirito has worked with professor Kate Ruskin of the School of Biology and Ecology on a research project examining stakeholder preferences on freshwater resource management in Acadia National Park. DiSpirito’s research earned a Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowship and culminated in a paper currently under review for publication. She also was named a 2020 Maine Policy Scholar for her project focusing on community natural resource management policy. 

During semester breaks in 2019–20, DiSpirito interned with the Solid Waste Division in her hometown, assisting with inspections and enforcement for the city’s curbside recycling program. Last year, she interned with the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions’ Food Waste Solutions team, working with municipalities across Maine to set up and maintain community food recycling pilot programs.

Research for DiSpirito’s Honors thesis, “Envisioning a Bold Food Waste Policy for Maine: A Mixed-Methods Study into the Context of Landfill Diversion of Food Waste,” was funded by a CUGR Fellowship and the Rendle A. Jones ’65 and Patricia K. Jones ’65 Honors Thesis Fellowship. She presented her findings at the 2022 Maine Sustainability and Water Conference and the University of Maine Student Symposium.

DiSpirito is president of All Maine Women Honor Society and Wilson Center Interfaith Group that she cofounded. She also has been a student coordinator for the Maine Day Meal Packout and It’s Personal Campaign, and a co-organizer of  UMaine’s International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day programs.

“My uncle told me before my freshman year that college would be the place where I find myself, and he was 100 percent right,” says DiSpirito, a first-generation college student. “While my time here has equipped me with so many experiences and skills that will prepare me for a stellar career in environmental justice advocacy, the most valuable asset UMaine has given me is a strong sense of self and empowerment to step up and into that career.”

This summer, DiSpirito will be working in Washington, D.C. as part of the Truman Scholar Summer Institute. She will return to Maine in August to continue the work she started in her thesis research, focused on food waste and waste management issues in the state. Ultimately, DiSpirito will pursue law school.

Burtis is a mechanical engineering major with a neuroscience minor. His numerous academic honors include the Thomas P. Hosmer Scholarship in Mechanical Engineering and the J&M Gorman Mechanical Engineering Scholarship.

Since 2018, Burtis has been the co-founder and chief technology officer of Ferda Farms LLC oyster farm on New Meadows River. He started the company with help from UMaine’s Foster Center for Innovation to experiment with the husbandry techniques of emerging viable species, and to create the machinery needed to make the raising of farmed seafood more efficient and accessible. Burtis is responsible for most of the farm’s daily operations management and long-term development strategy. At the 2019 Maine Business Challenge, he won the $10,000 first place and $5,000 innovation prize for his work in developing this cutting-edge company.

On campus, Burtis has been a member of the Maine Bound Adventure Center trip staff and a member of the UMaine chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, president of the UMaine chapter of Pi Tau Sigma Honor Society, and has had leadership roles on the Class of 2022 Council, Student Alumni Ambassadors and Maine Effective Altruism. In summer 2018, Burtis was a mechanical engineering intern with Starc Systems. 

As a student researcher, he designed a small-scale solar-powered oyster upweller, and in the Juneau Icefield Research Program, an eight-week Earth science field research expedition into the Alaskan backcountry, he investigated the use of drones for arctic research and examined bedrock fracture density and orientation using photogrammetry models. His research received multiple funding awards, including two Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships, a College of Engineering Research Award and a Thomas E. Lynch Honors Thesis Scholarship. Burtis’ Honors thesis is “The Performance Assessment of a Small Lighter-than-Air Vehicle for Earth Science Remote Sensing Missions.”

“My time at UMaine has taught me that my dreams can become my reality,” Burtis says. “UMaine has enabled me to explore the polar regions, start a business, build artificial intelligence, fall in love with the outdoors and hopefully publish my own research. At UMaine, I have cultivated my passions, found inspiration, and have been supported by excellent mentors throughout.”

In addition to leading Ferda Farms, Burtis plans to pursue graduate school to study data science.