A Brilliant African lady named Amie Fornah Sankoh has become the first deaf person to graduate from the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville in the United States of America.
Amie Fornah Sankoh earned a Doctorate degree in Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology at UT. Her research explored the biological communication of plants through the impact of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions. This made her the first Black deaf woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. In a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) program.
Amie was born in Sierra Leone without any hearing impairment but at the age of 3, she became deaf as a result of a civil war in her country. Due to this, she struggled academically in elementary school, Amies’s father then decided to send her to a family friend in the US in hopes of finding a cure. But despite seeking medical treatment, all efforts to reverse her hearing were to no avail.
Left with no choice, AMIE embraced the deaf community and learned American sign language (ASL). Academic life in the US was also challenging for her as she could not understand what her teachers and classmates were saying.
Amie said she understood mathematics because of its visual nature, even though she couldn’t comprehend spoken instructions, she was able to follow the formulas and step-by-step processes of the subject. Her passion for more advanced math developed her interest in chemistry.
“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, I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions–how the reactions occur–and then make predictions,’’ she said.
Amie earned an associate degree in laboratory sciences from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the same institution. After she graduated high school, she secured a job at Dow Chemicals, a laboratory where she participated in research. The doctoral research focused on the impact of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions and this sparked her desire for a Ph.D.
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“I was participating in research and enjoying it, and learning and experiencing the beauty of it, and then started to discover my own potential, and that led me to go ahead and enter the Ph.D. Program at UT Knoxville,” Amie explained.
During her time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, she faced the challenge of scientific communication, because communication is vital in laboratory work, and sign language which was her option of communicating lacks specific scientific signs.
Amie had to rely on facial expressions and lip reading to communicate with her classmates. Then COVID happened and everyone had no option but to wear face masks but she pulled through with the help of her supportive colleagues who wore transparent face masks for her sake and made efforts to use written communication.
Amidst these challenges, she successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis in front of a supportive audience of 150 friends, family members, and colleagues. Amie also served as the featured commencement speaker at UT’s Graduate Hooding Ceremony, recalling her journey.
Amie will be continuing her studies at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri. She hopes to serve as a shining inspiration for everyone especially those with hearing impairments to show that anything is possible.
“Hopefully, I will continue research and continue to be involved in outreach with the deaf community and advocating on its behalf…Maybe even able people themselves will be inspired, maybe they have doubt because graduate school is hard,” she said.