Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh has a lot to celebrate after becoming the first deaf Black woman to receive a Stem doctorate. Born in Sierra Leone, Sankoh lost her hearing at the age of three. As a struggling elementary school student, her father sent her to the US to explore options to help cure her hearing.
“My father sent me to live with his best friend in America, who adopted me,” she said in an interview. “Doctors in the US could not cure my deafness, but I was able to join the deaf community where I learned American Sign Language [ASL] over the next few years.”
After continuing to struggle to improve her grades in middle school, Sankoh said she had a breakthrough in high school. “In high school, I really fell in love with the more complex mathematics, which is why I got into chemistry,” Sankoh said. “I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions – how the reactions occur – and then make predictions. It was very exciting – with the reaction, you’d have to write it down and draw it out.”
This love of science led her to a post-high school job as a lab technician. She then went on to earn an associate degree in laboratory sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. That same school is where she earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry.
On May 20, Sankoh graduated with a PhD from the University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. This made her the first deaf Black woman to receive a doctorate in any scientific, technical, engineering and maths discipline in the US. According to Chemistry World, she may be the first deaf Black women in the world to reach that accomplishment.
She credits her strong will to achieve with helping overcoming many of the obstacles she faced on her way to gaining her PhD.
“I can’t tell you how many times I had self-doubt and thought I’m not able, I’m not going to pass,” Sankoh told Chemistry World. “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 on just advocating for my inclusion and accessibility.”