Sierra Leonean Becomes First Deaf, Black Woman in U.S. to be Awarded Doctorate in STEM

by Xara Aziz
University of Tennessee

A Sierra Leonean who lost her hearing at three and grew up during the Sierra Leone civil war has just become the first deaf, Black woman to be awarded a doctorate in any scientific, technical, engineering and math discipline in the United States.

Amie Fornah Sankoh graduated with a PhD from the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology Saturday. It marks a remarkable feat for a woman who, as a child, was failing elementary school because she could not hear. According to Sankoh, who spoke to Chemistry World, her family decided to move to the U.S. in hopes that she could gain her hearing again.

“My father sent me to live with his best friend in America, who adopted me,” Sankoh said. “Doctors in the US could not cure my deafness, but I was able to join the deaf community where I learned American Sign Language [ASL] over the next few years.”

While she continued to struggle in school in the States, it was a math class that opened her eyes to the idea of potentially getting into the STEM field one day.

“Mathematics is just very visual, and I was able to enjoy that,” Sankoh recalled. “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.”

It was in high school when she began to soar to become a standout among her peers.

“In high school, I really fell in love with the more complex mathematics, which is why I got into chemistry. I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions – how the reactions occur – and then make predictions. It was very exciting – with the reaction, you’d have to write it down and draw it out.”

Sankoh would later obtain an associate degree in laboratory sciences and a bachelor’s in biochemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She would then work at a lab.

“I was participating in research and enjoying it, and learning and experiencing the beauty of it, and then started to discover my own potential,” she said. “And that led me to go ahead and enter the PhD program at UT Knoxville.”

Now that she has been awarded a PhD, she hopes that she can inspire other people with the inability to hear to pursue their goals regardless of the circumstance.

“I can’t tell you how many times I had self-doubt and thought I’m not able, I’m not going to pass,” she explained. ‘The journey was very challenging, but with the right mentor I was able to overcome – I was able to focus on the science rather than on just advocating for my inclusion and accessibility.”

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