Amie Fornah Sankoh, a Sierra Leonean woman who lost her hearing at the age of three and endured the hardships of the civil war, has become the first deaf, Black woman to be awarded a doctorate in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) discipline in the United States.

The historic moment unfolded on Saturday as Sankoh received her PhD from the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology.

Sankoh’s journey to this remarkable feat was filled with challenges. As a child, she faced academic struggles due to her inability to hear, prompting her family to make the life-changing decision to relocate to the United States in search of a potential cure. While medical professionals couldn’t restore her hearing, Sankoh immersed herself in the deaf community, where she gradually learned American Sign Language (ASL).

Despite continuing difficulties in her academic pursuits, Sankoh’s passion for mathematics ignited a spark of hope for her future in the STEM field.

Reflecting on her experience, she recalled, “Mathematics is just very visual, and I was able to enjoy that. 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.”

Her interest in mathematics blossomed during high school, leading her to excel among her peers.

“In high school, I really fell in love with the more complex mathematics, which is why I got into chemistry. I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions – how the reactions occur – and then make predictions,” Sankoh explained enthusiastically.

With an associate degree in laboratory sciences and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Sankoh further honed her skills while working in a laboratory. The invaluable experience fueled her ambition, ultimately driving her to pursue a PhD at UT Knoxville.

Having now achieved her doctorate, Sankoh aspires to inspire others with hearing impairments to pursue their dreams against all odds.

“I can’t tell you how many times I had self-doubt and thought I’m not able, I’m not going to pass,” she shared. “The journey was very challenging, but with the right mentor I was able to overcome – I was able to focus on the science rather than just advocating for my inclusion and accessibility.”

Amie Fornah Sankoh’s groundbreaking achievement serves as a testament to the indomitable human spirit and the power of perseverance. Her triumph not only marks a significant milestone for the deaf and Black communities but also opens doors of possibility for countless individuals facing similar circumstances.

Source: University of Tennessee