Practicing inclusion: The importance of mentorship and disability justice in science

November 23, 2023 Raka Mitra, PhD, Dominique Holtappels PhD, Tiffany Mak PhD Season 2 Episode 3
Practicing inclusion: The importance of mentorship and disability justice in science
Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be practicing inclusion in science? In this episode, we interviewed Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh, who shared stories about her journey in becoming the first deaf, Black woman to receive a doctorate in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) discipline in the United States.

A full transcript to the audio recording of the interview can be found here. A video version of the recording will be released at a later date for audiences to experience and engage with Amie through the embodiment of sign language. 

Special thanks to Dr. Gloshanda Lawyer, Taylor Harris and Jolanta Galloway for their help with interpretation.

Music adapted from Blue Dot Sessions.

Podcast produced by Dr. Tiff Mak and Dr. Dominique Holtappels.

 ”My goal was to pursue my passion because as a deaf person it's important for us to have mentors, mentors who are willing to understand us as deaf individuals and who accept us as deaf individuals.” 

(Background music)


The words you have just heard are from Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh, spoken through the voice of Dr. Gloshanda Lawyer. I had the pleasure of meeting Amie and her wonderful team of interpreters Gloshanda, Taylor, and Jolanta. At the International Society for Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, this past summer. Amie kindly agreed to do this podcast interview with me, and I am excited to be sharing her inspiring story with you today. 

Amie: Hi, my name is Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh. Thank you Tiff for having me be a part of your podcast. I recently graduated with my PhD in Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, and I'm currently working as a postdoc at the Danforth Plant Science Center. I study cell-to-cell communication in plants, and my pronouns are she/her. 

Tiff: Thank you, Amie. And so what got you into science? What was it that made you really interested to do a PhD on this?

A: My journey is a little bit different from most people. Maybe it's similar for other deaf folks though. I was born as an individual who was not deaf, but I became deaf at the age of three. At that time, my family's goal was to figure out how to solve this issue with my ears. So they pursued medical intervention. And during that time I had no access to language, I had no access to learning materials until I was 12 years old, when my parents decided that they would send me to the United States to have a surgery to potentially help me become hearing again.  

Later, they realized that medical intervention was not possible, and so I stayed in the United States with a best friend of my father. At the age of 15, I started learning American Sign Language, and that changed my entire life. For the first time I could learn. Often, people assume that because I could not hear, I could not learn, and I felt something was wrong with me. 

And so before learning American Sign Language I really enjoyed math, but I thought it was because math is a universal language, it was easy to access mathematics material. And then when I got to more complex levels of mathematics, and then I arrived to chemistry, I was very successful. In other classes, I was failing, but in this content area I was not. I remember being in a Spanish class and not being able to hear the material and failing the class, but I was excelling in chemistry. When I learnt American Sign Language, other content areas became accessible and I was opened up. Chemistry has always been accessible to me and that's why I fell in love with it. 

So if I had access from an early age, I think my life trajectory would have been very different. And so now, having access to American Sign Language, I still experience challenges because science is not accessible. Now we see technology and other improvements. We see different programs that are available to deaf students. And we see chemistry and other fields, I decided I'm going to pursue biochemistry as my field of choice.

And then I also realized the world is mine. I can do whatever I want. But I still experience that intimidation and fear being in a scientific field because communication is not accessible in that context. And so I was making a decision whether I should pursue my education in biochemistry or in another field, and someone said to me, “Go forth with your education in whatever field you want.” So I decided to give it a try in this specific science field. 

And my goal was to pursue my passion, because as a deaf person, it's important for us to have mentors, mentors who are willing to understand us as deaf individuals and who accept us as deaf individuals. And so having my mentor who was in a different field than the one I wanted to pursue, which was biochemistry, I decided I'll change my fields in order to work under this mentor.

And so I was very surprised that I was actually intrigued with plant biology and I stayed with it for six years. I had to be patient, I had to advocate for myself, I had to persist, because we know that this field is already difficult. Graduate students who are not deaf experience challenges as well. But for me as a deaf person, my challenges are exasperated in this field. And so I decided to continue in this field until I graduated successfully, and that's how I arrived here at the completion of my doctoral program.  

T: So congratulations, first of all.  And so you mentioned your…

A: Thank you.

T: …your mentor, is that Tessa Birch Smith?

A: Yes, it is. Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith is my mentor. 

T: And so how did you meet her in the first place? 

A: So I went to the University of Tennessee under a different professor. This professor was not willing to accommodate my needs as a deaf individual, to provide accessibility, to provide support. They really couldn't understand who I was as a deaf person. Yes, I was able to advocate for myself. Because often we see when we advocate, we become the problem and identified as the problem.

So during my time with that other professor, Dr. Burch-Smith saw what I was going through, and then we had a talk where we explained about the different challenges that I experienced as a deaf person, and she completely understood that because she's a black principal investigator. And so from that experience with her and having those conversations, I decided to transfer to her lab.

And I think about industry, and that was ultimately my goal. But I decided to select her lab over an industry track. And what I noticed is that she was completely willing to make adjustments for me and accommodate me in the lab. And so, I can give you an example one idea of how she made it accessible for me. She would provide the content in advance for me, she would inform others that they had to speak clearly, that they had to interact directly with me. And so I felt included. Can you imagine being a deaf scientist in the scientific community is very isolating. And so… when I think about this isolation, it's severe, it's extreme for us deaf folks. And so having me included, having sign language and communication if an individual in the lab cannot sign, we write back and forth, we email instead of meeting in person. So being able to work with my mentor, have these interactions with my colleagues, being able to communicate with one another in our workspace, it's been an amazing experience. 

T: That sounds wonderful an environment to work in. So you were in University of Tennessee with Tessa and you moved with her to the Danforth Center then?

A: I did, yes. So Dr. Burch-Smith moved to the Danforth Center while I was still a graduate student, and I had the choice to either stay at the university and select a different mentor, or to pursue my research under Dr. Burch-Smith at the Danforth Center. And I decided to go that route. And really, the Danforth was a different experience for me because they were willing to change their models of doing things and provide accessibility. Their politics was very different than a university. They're very supportive of individuals. And so, at the center, I can access everything without barriers. And so, that was my amazing experience at the Danforth. I believe if I had not moved to the Danforth, I probably would not have completed my doctoral studies because there were so many challenges in my previous context, and so many difficulties. 

T: Right. And so you mentioned about language, that's also what drew you to science. You initially started with math and then you realized science was also a universal language. Can you tell a bit more about the American Sign Language? When we had a conversation the other day, I heard you had to establish your own terminologies with your interpreters as well.

A: Yes, so when I said that math was a field of interest for me and I immersed myself in it, it is because it's so visible.  Whereas, biology, those things were not, accessible for me at that time. And so with American Sign Language, for example, when you have a deaf person working in a lab, that deaf person has to create American Sign Language signs to communicate that lab content.

For example, a word like plasmodesmata, there is no sign for that word, and so we would have to spell that entire word on our hands every day. When you're trying to have a conversation with someone, or giving a presentation, you have to spell every letter of that word. And so instead of spelling it every time, I would say ‘P-D’. Or Nicotiana benthamiana, which is a plant, I would sign ‘N-B’ on my chin. Or arabidopsis, I would create a sign like the ‘A’ coming up like a plant. And so I had to provide access to hearing non-deaf scientists by developing signs with interpreters, because there are a lot of things that are… For example science communication, it’s not available in American Sign Language. And the language structures of English and American Sign Language are completely different, so I had to do the labor of creating those content in American Sign Language to be able to effectively communicate it to non-deaf scientists. 

T: Wow, and is there a community of deaf scientists that they start sharing these vocabularies,  and so it's easier for you to communicate with each other? 

A: Well... Okay, let me give you an example. Bacteria. There are many different kinds of bacteria, right?  So I sign bacteria as a ‘B’ moving away from my body, because there are various bacteria. And in plants, they tend to, we, for example, research them in the roots. And so I want the sign to show the location of where it happens in a plant. Whereas with other bacteria, like skin bacteria, we sign it in a different space and location on the body. And so with American Sign Language, we use the space. So now we think about organizations like scientific communities who would have to set up these signs to make it standardized and bring in different scientists who are deaf to create that. But most deaf scientists are working in silos, and so having deaf people to have access to obtain a PhD.

For example, I am the first black, deaf woman to obtain a PhD in my field, and that's difficult, because the lack of accessibility. So if more deaf people had access to that, we might see more of them in the field. So with science, everything is so auditory based. For example, working in the lab. When a timer goes off, that's sound-based, and so Dr. Burch[-Smith] has added flashing lights where I can see it and I have a mirror set up in my workspace so I can see that light even from behind me. And so we had to come up with these different mechanisms for accommodating me in the lab. And it is possible, but we have to change how we do things.

For example, when we have high pressure freezing, where you freeze a sample, and it has to be done quickly, and it's based on sound, I can't hear that. And so, why not add the flashing light? So again, the scientific community, change is happening, but it's happening slowly. I wish it could happen more quickly. But we have the right mentors in place, those changes can happen.

I can give you another great example where there was a professor instructing a class about how to use microscopes. And because I'm deaf, they assumed that I couldn't use that. And so, I [they] went to Dr. Burch[-Smith] and [asked] I said, “Can [Amie] I use the microscope?” And  they [she] said, “Of course! Give her the key to go down to that lab to use the microscope.” But again, they create barriers instead of opening opportunities for doctoral students who are deaf. So having that support, having those who are willing to teach, other scientists, so that they can change their practices, that's the goal, so that we can improve the scientific community before we open the doors for more deaf scientists to come in and experience the same barriers.The community has so much information to share, but the accessibility is a lacking component for making that sharing possible.  

T: Yes, I definitely agree. And I can't help but be amazed by how you described the bacteria and where they are and the way in which you developed the sign language. And I think actually the scientific community have a lot to learn from this, because we often when we study bacteria, we just are so obsessed with the species and taxonomy, the names, and we forget where they come from, what they actually do. And the sign language is such a beautiful language to communicate what the organisms are doing. So thank you for sharing that with me, I would definitely think a lot more about this.

A: Yes, there is a lot related to this topic because you can sign, bacteria and then you can talk about Rhizobia, and the entire time I'm thinking about these concepts and I'm thinking, “Well, this person said bacteria, but actually, the presenter was not talking about bacteria. The presenter was thinking about Rhizobia.” And so thinking about plants and all of these specific things that we need to talk about. There's so many…  Well, we know science is already complicated, and so there are so many layers to all of this, but I believe that if we continue to share accessible information, we can continue to improve this by creating more signs that are related to scientific topics.

You can have, for example, a big organization or conference like ASPB (American Society of Plant Biologists), they have the power to create something for deaf scientists and invite scientists to come with this group of deaf people who are in different fields like physics, marine biology, plant sciences, chemistry...  If we bring them all together, how are we able to create science for an organization like ASPB? And so I'm thinking about microbes. That's only a small group of us who actually study that topic. And so now, this small group of us at MPMI, for example, could develop science for this topic.

One thing I noticed that when I completed my doctoral studies, there are a few other deaf individuals who have their doctoral studies, but they tend to withdraw from the scientific community because they experience frustrations with not feeling welcomed, with not having access, and so they tend to transition to other fields like teaching deaf children in deaf schools because they don't feel welcomed in the scientific community. 

I believe the scientific community has a lot of resources to provide, but we don't have the accessibility to come to accommodate providing those resources. And so as scientists, they tend to see me as a single cell, right? I am one cell, but I am part of the entire plant system, and it has multiple cells in that plant system. And so instead of coming together, they tend to separate people like me, out from the system. But again, I'm here to impact change. Hopefully, starting this Thursday, it will enlighten a few people in MPMI. 

T: You definitely are enlightening me now, so I can tell you that. Speaking of community, as you mentioned, it's not always easy to be able to share with other scientists, or actually, get to know what's going on in the field because they don't accommodate for the needs. So where have you found good examples, or would you have any thoughts [on] what would be the best way to enable more sharing, at a meeting for example, or seminar series? How should people be more inclusive in the way in which they conduct these things?

A: People always have to be mindful of others. So the science community, we all have diverse backgrounds in this community. And for many scientists, English is not their first language. And often we come in spaces and individuals are speaking so quickly, and we are trying to listen to the English. And it's the same concept with American Sign Language interpreters. Oftentimes the interpreters are overlooked, and that's something that's so simple. A deaf person is here, a deaf person is watching this information, but I think they don't think of others. So when you have a workshop, advertise diverse backgrounds. And again, why do we only see one here when we have over 600 people and I'm the only deaf attendee? There's a reason for that. If you welcome more deaf folks, you will see more deaf folks. 

So, for me... I'm here because Dr. Burch-Smith is part of MPMI, and she's my mentor, and she knows what my needs are as a deaf person, so she is ready to advocate for me, to help to remove those barriers. And she says, “If Amie can't have access to this or attend this, the rest of us can't as well.” And so what I really appreciate is that she has removed so much of the burden from my shoulders by doing that advocacy work.

And so often there are individuals who don't understand that it is tiring to always have to explain to individual people what my needs are. But having a mentor who's willing to do that work is nice. And I still experience struggles. Because again, we don't have training for these things. And so I remember when we had to emphasize at the seminar, once again, what the needs of the space were, “I use sign language. I have interpreters here, but they're not just for me. The interpreters are here for everyone in the space, and so you all should be willing to communicate with me. And you have two ways to do it: you can learn American Sign Language, or you can use your interpreter to communicate with me.”

But instead, they would rather have me pigeonholed and ignored in the space. And I think some people are just… unaware. They've never seen diverse people or deaf individuals before. And so if we have those who are in leadership positions thinking about these other communities, then the solution is there. I don't have to show up and explain what inclusion is because inclusion means everyone. So if we start with those who are most excluded, the result would be that we're including everyone.  

T: Yes, thank you for saying that. That is really important. So maybe we can talk a little bit more about the science. I'm very curious now, after you finished your PhD, what is it that now excites you most that you want to keep going on to find out about?

A: (Chuckles with excitement) I'm excited. I'm very excited! Finishing my PhD has... given me a lot of peace of mind because during my PhD program, I was always working, I always had doubt and then when I completed the PhD, I said, “I'm a scientist!” And I've been a scientist this whole time, but I realized that my self doubt was because I didn't have role models like me. And Dr. Burch-Smith would be a perfect role model, but she can hear and I'm deaf. And so it's not exactly the same. If I had a role model who was like me, I would say, “Yes, I'm confident that I'm a scientist!” but inside I still had that self doubt.

And so when I completed the PhD, I realized, “I can do this!” And so finishing gave me time to enjoy the science itself, in time to research things that I wanted to learn more about and things that I had more interest in. So I felt more confident in myself and now I don't have to be intimidated and say, “I'm a graduate student, and this is the boss…” “We're colleagues now and we're in dialogue with one another now” and so it's really nice.

When I studied, and I was reading a lot of diverse literature about defense hormones, specifically salicylic acid. And so salicylic acid is a hormone that triggers a defense response,  intercellularly and it impacts intercellular trafficking. And so I'm interested in salicylic acid because it does not go directly through plasmodesmata. It sends signals through the plasma  and the apoplast. And so, I was a little intrigued about that. I went ahead and tested my hypothesis and I decided to test salicylic acid at different time points. And what I found was that  the response is dynamic depending on the time.

T: Wow. 

A: So that shifted everything from what the previous literature showed, because the previous literature only studied one time point. And so for my poster downstairs, I had my hypothesis about what's happening. And so I believe that there's a short term response. And that salicylic acid is activating localized callus formation to shut down those different trafficking. So when it notices or detects a pathogen, it shuts down and then it opens for a time period to allow important molecules or defense molecules, or other signals to inform other cells to stop that intercellular spread of the pathogen. 

So this research helped me to see that later there's also a long term shutdown effect that happens as well. So now I'm looking at the defense responses and I want to go back to thinking about expanding beyond a different time point and looking at other time points to see what's missing and what information is important for a defense response that we have not yet found.

And so that's what I've been studying and I want to add more complexes like, what if we have a virus, and does this trigger a different response with salicylic acid. And so, plasmodesmata is very, very small, so you can't really study it [the structure] through GFP movement, [light] microscopy, etc. And so now thinking about adding a virus, that's also difficult because viruses can change the plasmodesmata structure. 

So how do I know if it's salicylic acid or if it's a virus? The research becomes more complicated. So I was thinking about mutating the genes to see that if I infiltrated with salicylic acid, and then I'm looking at the salicylic acid pathway, what would be the response from that? So I'm trying different things and it's really exciting research, and I have so many ideas. But my ideas tend to develop after I graduated, because before I graduated I was doubting myself, I was questioning if I could do this research. But after I graduated, I felt the self-confidence.

T: Yeah, that's great. That's very liberating. I think I resonate with that as well, that you always have self doubts.  And also when you're in grad school, you have to write your thesis.. all these administrative things you have to do, and that's not always the most creative period of your time.  

And so then I guess turning to you more as a person, not just as a scientist, tell me what does Amie like to do in her free time when she's not in the lab? 

(Both laughs)

A: So for science, I do want to say… I'm done with my PhD, and I think I'm free to do the research that I'm passionate about. So I'm excited about that, and now I'm looking for options that will allow me to [not only] select my mentor instead of selecting the science. Because as scientists we have a lot of options, right? So one of my biggest goals is to have options to select the science that I want with the right mentor who provides access. 

And for enjoyment… I love being with deaf people. The science community is so isolating. And my lab mates, they do use sign language, but it's not the same experience. And so, think about someone who learned a new language, and so it's always slower. But with the deaf community, we sign, and it's so fluid, and we have so much information, and the access there is 100%.

So in my free time, I like to tutor deaf students, where I don't have to think about and figure out how to put these solutions in place, because, for example, I might have one sign with my lab mates and then I have to fill the gaps myself to figure out what is the whole sentence they're trying to share.

Whereas with the deaf community, I can be myself and the information is there. And so, having hobbies like swimming, skating, and doing all these other things. I would love to have that, but it's so difficult when we live in a world where deaf people don't have access everywhere.

So for example, I wanted to learn how to swim, but there's no one who uses sign language. I can go to the local gym, the university, and I will not find someone who can use sign language, so I have to plan those activities out. So one of my dreams is to actually be able to go into any setting and the language is there. So that's one of the reasons I'm so thrilled to be able to socialize with deaf people anytime I can.

When I'm flying to a different place, I take advantage of those opportunities to meet the deaf people there. I don't talk about the work, I just go ahead and enjoy myself. And so there are times where I want to leave the scientific community and be immersed in a deaf community all the time. So, the answer to your question is, being with the deaf community.

T: Thank you for sharing that. And did you find some nice community here in Providence? Do you have time?

A: No, no time. And so I've really been… What I can say is nice. I've really been with the interpreters and taking advantage of their services in order to interact with scientists, because the opportunity to have interpreters present who are with me, so that these other scientists can interact with me, is a rare experience for me. So this is the first conference experience where I can actually fully interact with other scientists, including you. And so it's really nice.

I remember my first conference was ASPB, and the interpreters were not provided for the full time. For example, they only showed up for limited sessions and then the interpreters would leave.  So when a party is happening, I can't communicate with anyone. So I would be on my phone, “Where is the deaf community here?” And I would escape from the conference setting, and meet with deaf individuals from that place and chat. They would say, “Oh, why are you here?” And I would say, “Oh, I'm here for this conference.”

But it's so sad because my experience forces me to leave these spaces in order to find that community. And so, now I can have the opportunity to network with different scientists here. So these interpreters come with me to dinner, so if you wanted to get together for dinner, the interpreters would be there with me ready so that we could communicate, which is nice! In the past, I would be at a table full of scientists and everyone's talking, and I'm just sitting there nodding because I don't understand what they're sharing.

So the nice thing about my mentor is that she takes a moment to share some of the things that are happening with me. And so, for example, frustrations that other students are experiencing, or frustrations that she experienced, that they're all talking about, she'll give me a little bit of that context, so that I understand that I'm not the only one that's suffering in this space. But, they are all in this space that's sharing these stories with one another, and I don't have access to those stories. And so, Dr. Burch-Smith will say, “Oh, you're not the only one. Someone else is experiencing this.” And at first I didn't believe her. I was in disbelief. I said, “You always say that.” But she had that information from different people.

And so, there was one graduate student who is my lab mate and does not sign.  And we went to lunch with one of the seminar speakers or presenters. I didn't go because interpreter access was not available and that speaker said that “Everyone talk, and so everything can look smooth from the outside, like everything is flowing nicely, but internally everyone's drowning.

Everyone's like hustling and that's what the PhD experience is like.” And so hearing about that, I said, “Oh wow!” Because I never knew what their stories were. So hearing their stories helps me to realize I'm not the only one who's struggling or suffering through. There were many times in my PhD journey where I wanted to quit because I thought I was the only one. I'm struggling, I'm having a hard time, and I'm the only one.

But then, I learned that we're all trying to make it through. But, for me, I have an additional difficulty of not having access provided. So, for example, if you have a colleague and you have an issue, you can approach that colleague and say, “How do I address this?” And they can give you feedback. Or they can give you more context to support you. Whereas if I do that, I might get one or two words, very short feedback, and then I have to take additional time to study and learn on my own because I don't have the full access.  

So for example, I took a lot of advanced courses and when I go to my courses, I didn't understand everything because the teaching style is very different. It's auditory based. For example, I went to a computational class and the professor would lecture and  I would look at the interpreter, and the professor is lecturing, and they're watching the entire class. They're typing, they're doing all the functions that the professor is explaining, and I have to watch the interpreter. 

And so, often the professor would come in class and say, “You're not paying attention Amie.”. And I would say, “What do you mean?” I was so embarrassed. I was a first year student. And I said to the professor, “I don't auditorily receive your information. I visually receive the information. So I'm watching the interpreter. Then I'm watching your PowerPoint. Then I'm looking at my computer. This is challenging for me.”

And my professor became embarrassed at my response. But instead of trying to help find a solution, I was called to come to the front of the class so the professor could talk, explain to me, and show me, which was embarrassing for me.

It was one of the most awkward experiences. That was one of my first doctoral experiences. Very embarrassing.  And so I was working hard to prove to myself that I'm a scientist and the additional burden of other individuals not seeing my barriers. For example, my classmates, they doubted themselves as well. And we would all think positive. And I would keep going in my journey. And they would say, “Wait, Amie can do this? You can do this too?  And I said,” I've been doing this all along. Why have you doubted me all this time?” So I want my peers to recognize my abilities, and recognize that we all have the same goals. Recognize my abilities the same as yours. I really thought I was going to quit and I surprised myself that I didn't.

T: Thank you for sharing that. As you said, we all have moments of doubt. And it's actually so helpful when you get to share it with someone. But because of how we communicate, and not sensitive that you may need a different way to be communicated with, you don't hear those stories and you feel really isolated.

So thanks for reaching out as well to share those stories. And I feel that I've really gotten closer to understanding more about you.

A: It's really nice to be recognized. Honestly, most of the time I'm like, “Oh, people want to interview me?” And I'm still surprised because it's not a common experience for me. And so it's so nice to be included, to be considered.  So much is changing and it makes me feel good because my past years, especially my first year, was a completely different experience than this.  And that was before I had my rotation course. That was before I met Dr. Burch-Smith. I had a completely different experience.

So when I joined Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith's lab for rotation, that's where she realized we had to change things. And so the two of us really grew together from the first time trying to interact with her and figuring out how to work with her. I have to say, the thing I love about her is that we focus on the science. I don't have to fight all these other barriers and invest my energy in all these other barriers. That's also the top reason that many deaf individuals don't pursue higher education or leave higher education because they don't want to fight for interpreters and captioning and this interpreter skill is not a good match. 

And your energy is so depleted.  And now you have to struggle in the PhD program with those fights that come along with that context in and of itself. So many people tend to leave higher education. And when I say the word many, the deaf community is very small. And now, me, as a black deaf woman in STEM, I am the only one [of very few]. 

So, what I can say to others is, choose a mentor who will support you. The research is exciting. I remember that I wanted to find a cure for cancer, and I was excited. I had a mentor. I wanted to rotate in [his] lab, and [he] rejected me on the spot because there was an interpreter present, and this mentor was not used to having a, quote, “second body” in the room. 

And so I was rejected and I cried. Of course I cried! That was my first experience of rejection. And I said, “Wow, I'm already getting rejected?”  But I thought it was the end and it wasn't, I kept going. And now I realized the importance of the mentor. You can figure out the research after you complete the PhD.

Now that I have my PhD.  I have, I don't know the word… I have the right to choose whatever I want now  because now I've learned the skills that I need as a researcher. The skills I need as a scientist to be able to go into other career tracks that are still in the science field. So for example, I've been considering going back to chemistry because I enjoy chemistry so much, it really is my passion, but I left chemistry in order to go into plant biology, and it hurt me, but I knew I had to do that to have the mentor that I have, and I don't regret that choice because my mentor is amazing. 

T: Thank you for sharing that, and maybe we will close soon, but just wondering, is there anything you would like to tell us? Are there questions sometimes you're like, “I always wish people asked me this” and you never get asked. 

A: One thing is this concept of competing with one another as graduate students. I don't understand why we don't strive to share information with one another. Sometimes we don't have access to information and we want to ask the question. And the response is,“Well, you should know”. But if I knew the answer, I wouldn't be in graduate school right? And so it's so competitive and the concept of sharing information is not there.

Thinking about scientific information and sharing it with the general public. For example, there was a great presentation here at MPMI related to the cassava virus and finding the technology to test that in the farm setting, and sharing that information with farmers. And that research was based in Africa. And so, I have this feeling that people tend to come and take information they extract from us and they leave. And so, I'm also from Africa. And so that was a very amazing presentation where I could say, “Oh, me as a deaf person, how can I share information with one another and with others in the same way?”

And so we need to consider the various scientists and the various fields and not, for example, minimize the role of deaf scientists because of disabilities. For example, if there's a scientist who's not deaf, and there's a scientist who is deaf, they typically believe that this non-deaf scientist is more qualified than I am, just because of their hearing status.

And so I would love to see a place where we're all equal and we're treated with respect.  Because in that, no one is harmed and no one is offended if we're moving with respect as the foundation.

T: Yes, very well said, and thank you for that. I think that is a really great wrap to our wonderful conversation, and thank you for taking the time.

Maybe I should also mention what inspired me to ask you whether you're willing to have this conversation. I'm new to podcasts as well. The reason I got into this team of Assistant Feature Editors is to make science more accessible. And podcasting I thought was one of the good ways, but then after meeting you two days ago, I was like, well, there's clearly an accessibility issue with podcasting.

A: You're right. Exactly. A lot of people have talked about the benefits of podcasts, but I have never benefited from it. So if you are the first person to say “Hello, there's a deaf scientist that cares about having access to this information, please make it accessible.” Please do that. Because me, as the deaf person, being asked to transcribe podcasts so that I can access it. I'm the deaf person. Oftentimes, folks will use automated caption, and often they would recommend that, but they don't check to make sure it's accurate. So you should do that labor, read it, see if it's accurate, and if it's not, fix it.

And so, we think about podcasts where individuals have different speaking accents and the automated captions don't recognize it as easily, and the scientific terminology is not readily read by and understood by automated captioning, and so there are a lot of errors there.

Oh, something else to add. I'm thinking about the personality in the person's voice, right? So when I'm reading the transcript, all I see are plain words on a page. No personality is detected there. So, I'm just reading for content, and that's quite boring. And so, often they will ask, “Do you want an interpreter or captioning?” And I say, “I want the interpreter so that I can see your personality embodied in the interpretation, because captioning, they're just words on a page.” And so then you sound like whatever voice is in my head.

T: And I really appreciated you offering to do this video. And you also really emphasized it's the embodiment that really matters to you. And I also feel it, it’s being able to sit just across the table to you and feel your emotions. This is so much better than Zoom. And I'm so glad we could do this as well, and thank you again.

A:  Yes, thank you very much. And I want people to know that I am a deaf scientist, a proud deaf scientist. And I think from our perspective, it can be different than the mainstream perspectives, but we have so much to contribute to the mainstream scientist community. And if you have doubts about that, ask Dr. Burch-Smith.

T: You definitely do. Thank you.

A: Thank you.

(Music interlude)


This podcast is brought to you by MPMI Microgreens. I am your host, Tiff Mak, along with Dominique Holtappels. We thank Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh for sharing her perspectives, and Dr. Gloshanda Lawyer, Taylor Harris and Jolanta Galloway for their help with interpretation during the interview. Special thanks goes to Raka Mitra for her guidance and mentorship, and Tim Friesen and Tessa Burch-Smith for their support.

A full transcript of this podcast is available in the show notes. To hear more stories about plants, microbes and the people who study them, check out our other episodes on your preferred podcasting platforms.