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Meet Fornah Sankoh, the first deaf Black woman to Earn a Ph.D in stem



Amie Fornah Sankoh’s graduation day was more than just the completion of a degree.

She was the first deaf Black woman in the United States to complete her PhD studies in a science, technology, engineering, and math programme.

Sankoh received her Ph.D. after graduating from the University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville’s biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology programme, according to Chemistry World.

Sankoh, a West African native, was transported to the United States at the age of 12 to live with her father’s best friend after losing her hearing during the civil war.

She struggled with her studies as a young deaf student; American doctors could not cure her deafness. Sankoh said she took a few years to learn American Sign Language

Mathematics was enjoyable for Sankoh as she found it to be more of a visual subject.

“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,” she said.

In high school, she fell in love with more complex mathematics. That led her into chemistry, which excited her.

“I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions–how the reactions occur–and then make predictions,’” she said. Sankoh worked as a lab technician for Dow Chemical after high school.

She obtained both her associate’s degree in laboratory sciences and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She found another laboratory position after college.

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“I was participating in research and enjoying it, learning and experiencing the beauty of it, and then I started to discover my own potential,” Fornah said.

“As a result, I decided to enrol in the Ph.D. programme at UT Knoxville.”

Sankoh was the keynote speaker at the University of Texas’s Spring 2023 Graduate Hooding Ceremony. Her doctoral research examined the influence of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions.