Meet The First Deaf, Black Woman To Earn A Doctorate In STEM

Amie Fornah Sankoh, a native of Sierra Leone who experienced hearing loss at the age of three during the country’s civil war, has become the first deaf, Black woman to achieve a doctorate in any field related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) in the United States of America.

On May 20, she graduated with a Ph.D. from the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville.

Her remarkable journey started as a struggling 12-year-old student in Sierra Leone who faced difficulties in school due to her hearing impairment. In the hopes of finding a cure for her deafness, she was sent to the US, where her father’s best friend adopted her. Although her deafness couldn’t be cured, she was able to immerse herself in the deaf community, learning American Sign Language (ASL) over the following years.

However, her educational challenges continued as she struggled to learn a new language and keep up with her studies without being able to understand her teachers and classmates. Nevertheless, she excelled in mathematics, finding it visually oriented and enjoyable. While she couldn’t comprehend spoken language, she could understand mathematical formulas and problem-solving steps when they were written out.

Her educational journey took a positive turn in high school when she gained proficiency in ASL and received an interpreter’s support. She developed a passion for complex mathematics, which led her to pursue chemistry. Exploring chemical reactions and making predictions fascinated her, as she could visually represent them through writing and drawing.

Following high school, Fornah worked as a lab technician for Dow Chemical before deciding to pursue further education. She obtained an associate degree in laboratory sciences from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. With the guidance of a supportive undergraduate mentor, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the same institute.

After completing her undergraduate studies, Fornah continued working in a laboratory, where she discovered her own potential and decided to pursue a Ph.D. She entered the program at UT Knoxville, focusing her research on the impact of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions. As a graduate student, she received significant research support and has already co-authored four scientific publications.

One of the major obstacles she faced throughout her academic journey was scientific communication. Since traditional sign language lacks specific scientific signs, Fornah relied on facial expressions and lip reading to understand and convey research-related terminology. This communication challenge became even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic when face masks hindered her ability to lip read. However, her mentor provided exceptional support, and they adopted measures like using transparent masks and written communication to minimize these obstacles.

Although Fornah sometimes wished for more representation and diversity in her classrooms and labs, she is proud to have succeeded without such role models. She hopes her achievements will inspire the next generation of deaf scientists and empower them to recognize their own potential.

Despite experiencing self-doubt and numerous challenges along the way, Fornah’s perseverance, combined with the guidance of the right mentor, allowed her to focus on her scientific pursuits rather than solely advocating for inclusivity and accessibility. Her biological parents, who still live in Sierra Leone, traveled to the US to witness her receiving her Ph.D., affirming their belief that she could accomplish anything she set her mind to.

Currently conducting research at the Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit research institution in Missouri, Fornah looks forward to her postdoctoral position while exploring future career opportunities. She plans to continue her research, engage in outreach activities within the deaf community, and advocate on its behalf. Ultimately, she aims to uplift and empower not only the deaf.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: abubakarrjalloh@theafricandreamsl.com WhatsApp: +23276211583