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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Black Woman Makes History as the First Deaf Person to Earn a Doctorate Degree in STEM

Amie Fornah Sankoh

Nationwide — Amie Fornah Sankoh, a student from Knoxville, Tennessee, who lost her hearing at the age of 3, has made history as the first deaf Black woman to earn a doctorate degree in STEM in the United States, and possibly the world.

Sankoh, who was born in Sierra Leone, grew up during the civil war in the country. After losing her hearing, she struggled throughout her education. Her father hoped to find a cure for her deafness so he decided to send her to the US to live with his best friend, who adopted her.

Although a cure was not found, Sankoh discovered a sense of belonging within the deaf community and learned American Sign Language (ASL) over the years. The challenges in school weren’t gone but she said mathematics was something she grew to love.

“Mathematics is just very visual, and I was able to enjoy that,” she told the Chemistry World. “Anytime a person talked, I didn’t understand anything, but when they would write out the formulas then I could see it and I could see each step of how to solve that problem.”

Sankoh continued to excel in high school, wherein she developed her passion for complex mathematics and then chemistry. She particularly liked observing and analyzing chemical reactions and making predictions based on them.

Her love for science led her to work as a lab technician and pursue higher education. She attended the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where she earned her associate degree in laboratory sciences and thereafter her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.

Following her college graduation, she worked in a lab where she enjoyed participating in research. She was inspired to further her education and decided to enroll in the PhD program at UT Knoxville. Her PhD research focused on studying the effects of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions.

However, Sankoh faced a major obstacle on scientific communication with her fellow researchers. It was even more challenging when the pandemic happened and it almost made her give up her graduate studies. But her mentor and coworkers made efforts to minimize those obstacles and helped her push through.

After overcoming difficulties and self-doubt, Sankoh made history as she graduated with a PhD from the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. She celebrated her achievement with her biological parents who travelled from Sierra Leone to the US for her graduation.

Moreover, Sankoh, who already contributed as an author to four scientific publications so far, is set to take her postdoctoral position at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri.

“I feel very, very proud for persisting,” she said. “But I’m very happy that I am able to inspire the next generation of deaf scientists, so they can see their potential.”