Academics

When Dr. Alicia Wooten was in college, one of her biggest challenges was working with interpreters who weren’t familiar with scientific terms and concepts. She had to teach them signs to use. Barriers like that can make deaf people less likely to pursue careers in the STEM fields. So at an event on May 31, Wooten asked the undergraduates taking part in Accessible and Inclusive Biomedical Informatics and Data Science (AIBIDS) to think about this question: “How do we get people involved who are usually excluded from these spaces?”

Now in its second year, AIBIDS is a 10-week research internship program for students who identify as a member of a group underrepresented in the sciences. Lead by co-directors Dr. Gaurav Arora, Associate Professor of Biology in Gallaudet’s School of Science, Technology, Accessibility, Mathematics, and Public Health, and Dr. Richard D. Boyce, Associate Professor of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Pittsburgh, AIBIDS pairs participants with a mentor at either host institution for the summer. For the orientation, the entire group gathered at Gallaudet for several informative presentations related to deaf research and the experiences of deaf scientists.

Large group of people pose for a photo in JSAC on the Gallaudet campus
Participants in the AIBIDS program gathered at Gallaudet for a kickoff event that included the STEM signs panel.

The day wrapped up with a panel devoted to ASL STEM signs, a topic that inspired the recent Global STEM Sign Language Summit held at Gallaudet. Wooten, Dr. Christopher Hayes, and Dean of the Faculty Dr. Caroline Solomon — the three faculty members who spearheaded the conference — were joined by Todd Bonheyo and Georgia State University’s Scott Cohen for an exploration of how signs can shape deaf participation in STEM fields.

Arora noted that this is particularly relevant for AIBIDS, which also includes an internship for one interpreting student. Working with the program’s team of certified interpreters, this student has the chance to examine how scientific terminology is signed and negotiated over the course of the summer.

Not all of the students participating are deaf, so the panelists provided some context to help them understand their experiences. Wooten explained that complex terms are often fingerspelled, which can be time consuming. Cohen added that even if there is a sign for an English word, it might not look right during a chemistry class. “I’m sure you’ve all noticed that one word can have an everyday meaning or a science meaning,” he said. Wooten asked students to consider the sign for “gas” and whether that also works when referring to vapor in the air.

Even after identifying these issues, trying to figure out how to resolve them is complicated, Solomon said. Researchers working at universities can develop signs, but then the signs still need to be transmitted to interpreters and teachers. Other pathways need to exist too. “Language always has new emerging ideas and concepts. You don’t want to stifle innovation,” she said.

What the recent conference emphasized is that deaf scientists are dealing with similar problems around the world. Bringing people together was a valuable opportunity to share ideas, strategies, and projects. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Cohen said.

It also showed that there is demand for more exploration in this area. Many attendees asked organizers about holding future events. And Hayes, who was one of just a few mathematicians involved, would like to boost representation from a broader range of fields. “Let’s make sure we spread that awareness,” he said.

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