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Scientists and researchers are trying to make American Sign Language more STEM-inclusive

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There are thousands of words in American Sign Language, but that's still not enough. Some scientific or technical terms, like photosynthesis or gravity, don't have signs or signs that are widely agreed upon. So this week, a group of scientists and academics are gathering here in Washington to try to make improvements to the language. NPR's Hiba Ahmad reports.

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HIBA AHMAD, BYLINE: Inside a bright-white lab at the National Institutes of Health, scientists sit at their workstations. Test tubes and folders filled with data are spread out across their counters. You don't hear much, right? Well, that's because almost everyone here is using American Sign Language, or ASL.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: I just wanted to clarify that it'll be a little bit of a lag time between when you ask the question, when it's translated and when Megan responds.

AHMAD: It's where I meet Megan Majocha. She's a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University and working on breast cancer research here at the NIH. She's also deaf.

MEGAN MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) I definitely never saw myself working here. The NIH was a lofty goal.

AHMAD: Speaking through an interpreter, Majocha says she grew up loving science. She studied biology at Gallaudet University in Washington and then began her graduate work at Georgetown.

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AHMAD: This particular lab brings hearing and deaf researchers, together with ASL interpreters who have learned basic terms so that everyone is able to communicate effectively. But ASL doesn't always have a sign for every single scientific term.

MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) A lot of words in science tend to be finger spelled. A lot of scientific terms are already really long and complex.

AHMAD: Which Majocha says can slow down the process of communicating with one another. Let's take the word metastasis, which is when cancer spreads through the body. The problem here is that there technically isn't a sign for this word, but since the team uses it regularly in their lab, they decided to develop their own sign.

MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) What the function actually looks like in biology will influence the sign that we use. This sign is for cell.

AHMAD: She takes her hands and positions them as if she were holding a ball.

MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) And metastasis means something's messed up in the cell. Something's gone wrong. So the cell gets messed up, and then it spreads, and this is the sign for spread.

AHMAD: She then quickly flattens her hands out in front of her, as if to show that something is spreading.

CHRISTOPHER KURZ: (Through interpreter) ASL is not a 1-to-1 representation of English.

AHMAD: That's Christopher Kurz. He's a professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute for Technology in New York.

KURZ: (Through interpreter) A written word in English or a spoken word in English may not apply to the concept we want to present visually in sign language.

AHMAD: I spoke with Kurz on Zoom for more than an hour, which he explained requires two interpreters - one to begin and one to take over later because the quality of the interpretation goes down after a while.

KURZ: (Through interpreter) There will always be information lost wherever a translation is occurring. It's just a natural part of the process of translation.

AHMAD: Especially, Kurz says, if there isn't a consensus on which sign should be used for any given word. For the student trying to learn these complex subjects, all of this creates extra challenges. Students have to watch the interpreter, look at the board, take notes on their laptops. Some deaf students also read their professor's lips.

KURZ: (Through interpreter) You know, hearing students can look away from the teacher but still receive that auditory information, where a deaf student - if they look away from the interpreter, they're missing information.

AHMAD: Once there's greater consensus on which signs should be used for certain scientific terms, it will help level the playing field for deaf students. That inequality, according to the National Deaf Center, is why students are more likely to choose careers in other fields like business or education. And as Megan Majocha pointed out to me, it's not just about classroom time.

MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) Oh, you know, if we want to go to a happy hour after an exam or something, I have to make sure that there's an interpreter available. Or, you know, I can ask if the interpreter that's there can stay a little bit longer to go to the happy hour.

AHMAD: She's about to defend her dissertation later this spring. I asked her if she had any advice for deaf students who are questioning whether a future in science is for them.

MAJOCHA: (Through interpreter) I think it's important to connect with others in the field. And feeling deflated can happen, but networking is just so important to make sure that you're not feeling alone.

AHMAD: Once she graduates, her next big challenge - finding an employer who will feel comfortable working with her. Improvements in ASL, she says, will help. Hiba Ahmad, NPR news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Hiba Ahmad