Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics works to narrow gap for deaf students in STEM fields
August 22, 2013
Gallaudet Molecular Genetics Laboratory (MGL) Director Derek Braun, '95, recalls the incredulous reaction he received 11 years ago when he presented his research poster at an American Society for Microbiology conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, after completing his Ph.D. "The sign language interpreters and the conference organizers told me they had never seen a deaf science Ph.D. before," he said. "I originally thought I'd probably run into another deaf scientist there because it was such a large conference, but I didn't. This experience made me realize that we need more deaf scientists so that we can change people's attitudes about us."
Dr. Braun and other faculty members in the University's Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics have worked aggressively to increase the number of deaf students with the will and the talent to enter the burgeoning science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) career field through MGL internships and training in other research projects.
When it opened in February 2009, the MGL became the only laboratory of its kind to be designed, staffed, and managed by deaf scientists. It also lays claim to being the only bilingual biological research laboratory where people communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Over the past four years, the MGL has received applications for its summer internship program from deaf students enrolled at 19 colleges and universities, and trained 37 of these students, said Braun.
In addition to Braun, the MGL is staffed by Dr. Caroline Solomon, professor of biology; Elizabeth Craft, '91, laboratory technician; Dr. Raymond Merritt, '99, associate professor of biology; and Dr. Daniel Lundberg, '01, associate professor of chemistry.
"There's a major leak in the pipeline of training deaf and hard of hearing scientists," said Braun. "Deaf and hard of hearing students are just as likely as hearing students to choose a science undergraduate major, but very few deaf students make it through the pipeline. Few are finishing their Ph.Ds and finding jobs in science fields." Dr. Braun and Solomon believe that this is in large part due to a lack of deaf role models and mentors, who can give advice and create opportunities. "We are trying to fix this problem through our undergraduate research programs in the MGL," said Braun.
Most recently, Braun and Solomon worked with five students through last summer, two from Gallaudet and three from other universities. "We like recruiting students from mainstream universities and bringing them to Gallaudet, and being their deaf role models for the summer and beyond," said Solomon, whose interns monitored the water quality of the Anacostia River, which flows from Prince George's County, Md. to Washington, D.C. "Those students are the ones who need our support the most for their success as future deaf scientists." Solomon, who has been working with science interns for the past six summers, added, "I saw a huge improvement in just 10 weeks in those interns-a boost in their self-esteem, and a 'can-do' attitude. Over the summer, they grew as scientists, knowing how to analyze data and understanding the larger ecosystems they are studying."
Under Solomon's guidance, Kody Schouten from Hico, Tex., who is majoring in environmental engineering at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Tex., measured levels of phosphate in the Anacostia River. Schouten observed how phosphate concentrations affected the health of the river by testing water samples every two weeks. He also observed how the concentration of phosphate may be influenced by rainfall, and subsequently, run-off after rainy days.
"Coming to Gallaudet for this STEM internship made my world bigger," Schouten said. "I learned new ASL signs for science and learned more about deaf culture." Schouten said he felt alone at his school, but after coming to Gallaudet, his self-esteem increased, and the internship increased his motivation to become a scientist. Anna McCall, Gallaudet biology major from Flint, Mich., focused on concentrations of nitrogen in the Anacostia. "This is important, because Washington, D.C. has an old sewer system, so when it rains, sewage is mixed with storm water that is directly deposited into the Anacostia," McCall said. "If there is too much nitrogen in the water, more algae will grow, which decreases the amount of oxygen present in the water, which is harmful to aquatic life." McCall hopes her data will generate more awareness about water pollution and step up efforts to correct the issue.
"I feel that the summer internship program is very valuable as we serve as role models for deaf and hard of hearing students who are striving to be future scientists," explained Solomon. "I saw Schouten blossom as a person, socially and intellectually, and reach his potential. McCall also grew as a scientist by learning how to analyze and interpret data and understand the impact of her research."
One of Braun's projects, in collaboration with scientists at Gallaudet and other universities, focuses on the evolution of connexin 26 gene. The interns cloned a region of DNA from many individuals which is responsible for 35-50% of the world's congenital deafness, known as connexin 26. The project aims to answer whether there is a genetic or evolutionary mechanism driving connexin 26's current high prevalence. Among the hypotheses being tested are whether connexin 26 mutations are under relaxed selection or whether they may center on evolutionary advantage. This project may lead to insights into the complicated interplay between environment and genome, and may help explain the prevalence for certain genetic traits or diseases.
A second project investigated cost-effective DNA forensic fingerprinting for high school students to distinguish an individual's DNA profile. DNA fingerprinting is used in forensic science to match missing relatives or solve cases. Commercial kits are too expensive for use in the high school classroom, and the simplified labs that are currently marketed to teachers generally only accomplish a crude approximation of DNA fingerprinting by using dyes. The method created by the interns is around $2,400 cheaper than commercial kits. They named the method the Combined DNA Index System and successfully tested it with high school students on campus this summer for the Young Scholars Program, presenting each student with a picture of their DNA fingerprint to take home with them.
Lauren Burton, a Gallaudet biology major from Gaithersburg, Md., described her experience in the MGL working on the connexin 26 project as "my personal Big Bang expansion. The dense formation of knowledge and mental energy exploded," said Burton, as she prepped DNA samples to reconstruct the genealogy of connexin 26 mutations and tested the effects of different conductive buffers on DNA mobility. "The experience, along with supportive guidance by Dr. Braun and Beth Craft has prepped me with the seeds of skills necessary in the scientific field. I gained the motivation to continue my education after I graduate."
Also inspired to continue STEM studies in graduate school was Rochester Institute of Technology student Kristin Parker, a bioinformatics major from Brandon, S.D., who worked alongside Burton on gel electrophoresis under Braun's guidance. As a team, they examined how conductive buffers influence DNA mobility. Parker observed which buffers yielded the best and fastest results after performing gel electrophoresis. The findings are important, because faster and better results lead to conserving time and resources. "The internship helped me to have an enriching experience, which will help me decide on a specific career in science," she said. "I've learned a lot of new things which I can apply to research."
"I have never seen our deaf students as excited about science as they have been when doing research with us in our lab," said Braun. "And this excitement is lasting, because we are just now seeing our students regularly enter graduate school in science fields, where they weren't before."
Ease of communication was another factor cited by the interns in having a positive experience. The lab incorporates DeafSpace architectural principles in which building design features are used to maximize deaf people's visual access in educational, work, and living environments. For example, Braun explained that the lab has windows to allow natural lighting, and the space between benches and aisles in the MGL are one foot wider than in most labs, enhancing sight lines for signers. Even the thick steel support columns in the lab are covered with special paint that expands into thick foam when exposed to heat, rather than enwrapping them in thick concrete or cinder block, a measure that also improves visibility.
"I enjoyed the deaf-friendly environment in the MGL, and coming to Gallaudet helped me improve my English," said Jennifer Chin, a student from Leiden, the Netherlands. Chin worked with Braun on the connexin 26 project throughout the year, and served as one of the interns for the summer on developing inexpensive DNA fingerprinting for high school students. Chin hopes to work in a DNA laboratory when she graduates, and wants to gain experience by learning laboratory techniques, like she has done at Gallaudet. "Techniques are more important than research projects, because knowledge in techniques determines whether or not you can get a job in a lab," Chin said.
According to Braun, 36 percent of MGL alumni entered graduate school in STEM (science technology engineering math) fields, and another 14 percent are currently in post-baccalaureate programs in STEM. "In the last four years alone we've sent six students into graduate school in STEM, one of them to medical school," he said. "Five of these six students worked in our lab on research projects."
Summer interns are paid by stipend, made possible by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, NASA/D.C. Space Grant Consortium, the Beverley Taylor Sorensen Student Fellowship, the D.C. Water Research Resource Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Maryland Sea Grant, the National Science Foundation, and the Gordon Brown Fellowship. "We ask for an application, resume, official transcripts, letters of recommendation, and interviews," Solomon said. "We especially look for motivation, which is the most important deciding factor."
In addition to the internships under Solomon and Braun, Gallaudet students John Cha and Nicolas Garcia participated in a nanotechnology research project under the direction of chemistry professors and Co-Principal Investigators Paul Sabila and Charlene Sorensen, associate professor and professor, respectively, in the Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics. Nanotechnology is the study of the "super small" and consists of the study and of applications of materials with sizes less than 100 nanometers, which is one billion times smaller than a meter. The project is funded by a National Science Foundation grant* (NSF #1205608) with Howard University as the lead institution, while Gallaudet University, Cornell University, and Prince George's Community College are collaborating institutions.
Cha and Garcia developed methods for the preparation of molybdenum disulfide nanomaterials, which have potential applications in fabrication of electronic devices and semi-conductors. The students explored two approaches for synthesis of nanomaterials. They were able to deposit molybdenum disulfide films on silicon wafers and analyzed the products using a Scanning Electron Microscope, which produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons and contains information about the sample's surface composition and features.
The internship program started with orientation, lectures, and safety training at Howard University. The students were trained on using nanotechnology instruments like Scanning Electron Microscopy, Lithography, and Atomic Force Microscopy. They also did research at Dr. Sabila's research laboratory at Gallaudet and sample analysis at Howard University. At the end of the internship, the students had a three-day visit at Cornell University where they presented their posters and attended several workshops. While at Cornell, they toured the new state-of-the-art nanotechnology facility.
"It was interesting to watch the students grow as young scientists as the summer progressed. During the internship, the students became comfortable running several experiments and use various instruments with minimum supervision," said Sabila. "The internship provided students with opportunities to improve research and instrumentation skills which are of critical importance in the job market and in graduate school."
Students who are interested in an MGL internship can apply to the program at the link. More research and internship opportunities will be available during the 2013-2014 academic year and summer 2014 under Sabila and Dr. Sorenson. Students interested in these internship opportunities can contact them through the Department of Science, Technology, and Mathematics.
*Note: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF DMR1 205608. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.