Vickie Remoe Institute of Digital Communications

Celebrating Sierra Leone’s Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh: First deaf black woman with STEM Ph.D.

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Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh, who spent her early years in Sierra Leone during the civil war and lost her hearing around the age of three, has achieved a groundbreaking milestone. She has become the first Black woman who is deaf to earn a doctorate in any field related to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in the United States. Dr. Sankoh recently obtained her PhD from the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville.

This remarkable achievement is a far cry from her childhood struggles. As a 12-year-old girl in Sierra Leone, she faced academic difficulties due to her hearing impairment. In the hope of finding a cure for her deafness, she was sent to the United States. Although her deafness could not be cured, Sankoh embraced the deaf community and spent the subsequent years learning American Sign Language (ASL).

Reflecting on her journey, Dr. Sankoh shared, “My father arranged for me to live with his close friend in the United States, who later adopted me. While doctors in the US couldn’t restore my hearing, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the deaf community, where I gradually acquired proficiency in American Sign Language.”

Her transition to the US was not without challenges. As a middle school student, she faced difficulties comprehending her coursework and interacting with teachers and classmates due to the language barrier. However, she found solace in mathematics, which she found to be highly visual and engaging.

“Mathematics is inherently visual, and that appealed to me. Despite struggling to understand spoken language, I could grasp mathematical concepts when they were presented visually through formulas. I could see each step of problem-solving,” Dr. Sankoh explained.

Dr. Sankoh’s educational journey took a positive turn in high school when she became proficient in ASL and received support from interpreters. This allowed her to explore her passion for intricate mathematics, leading her to pursue chemistry.

“During high school, I developed a strong affinity for advanced mathematics, which drew me to chemistry. I became captivated by the intricacies of chemical reactions—their mechanisms and the ability to make predictions. It was thrilling. I would document and illustrate reactions, capturing every detail,” said Dr. Sankoh.

In her pursuit of scientific research, Dr. Sankoh faced communication challenges. Scientific sign language was limited, compelling her to rely on facial expressions and lip reading to comprehend and communicate complex research terminology. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified this obstacle due to mask-wearing, hindering her lip reading. However, with exceptional mentorship and creative solutions like transparent masks and written communication, these challenges were mitigated.

Currently, Dr. Sankoh is engaged in research at the Danforth Plant Science Center. Her future plans include continued involvement in outreach initiatives within the deaf community and advocacy on its behalf. Her ultimate goal is to uplift and empower not only the deaf community but also others facing similar challenges.

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