RIT/NTID science alumna overcame adversity to achieve Ph.D.
Amie Fornah-Sankoh, SVP ’09, ’14 NTID (laboratory science technology), ’17 College of Science (biochemistry), graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. Chemistryworld.com featured her as the first deaf Black woman to earn a STEM doctorate. She addressed the graduation ceremony as a featured speaker on Saturday, May 20, 2023.
“Graduating with a doctoral degree from the University of Tennessee feels incredible,” said Sankoh. “I feel very proud of this accomplishment. My family, friends, and mentors have supported me throughout the long, challenging process. I am relieved, my stress level has been reduced, and I am so relaxed now.”
While growing up during the civil war in the West African country of Sierra Leone, Sankoh encountered barriers to her survival, education, and language acquisition, all of which she had to overcome.
Sankoh’s parents did the best they could to support her education, but the education system in Sierra Leone could not accommodate her needs. So, when Sankoh was 12 years old, her parents sent her to the United States for a better education.
In the United States, she learned American Sign Language and connected with the Deaf community. In high school, she found a love for science and chemistry.
Sankoh then attended RIT/NTID, where she excelled in science. She credits NTID chemistry professor Todd Pagano as a mentor and advocate, who believed in her potential and challenged her to gain science knowledge.
“NTID is my home,” says Sankoh. “Todd is one of the most influential people, and he inspired me to enter the field of research science. That’s where it all started.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree at RIT/NTID, Sankoh continued her scientific research while pursuing her Ph.D. in the science program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she conducted a study on the effects of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions.
Although she experienced challenges during her Ph.D. journey, she found strength and support through the university’s Program for Excellence and Equity in Research (PEER), which provides professional development and mentoring opportunities for exceptional underrepresented students.
“As a deaf African American woman, I was told many times, ‘you can’t,’ but it is all of those experiences that made me the fighter, survivor, and advocate I am today,” she said.
Now that Sankoh has earned her Ph.D., she is currently working as a full-time postdoctoral research assistant at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. As an empowered individual who is a passionate advocate for underrepresented communities, she values the importance of diversity in science, and aims to work towards increasing diversity in STEM fields.
“It’s time for me to make a difference as a deaf scientist,” she said. “I feel that my life and educational experiences would encourage many deaf students and people of color and help them see the possibilities of STEM careers.”