Amie Fornah Sankoh Makes History As First Black Deaf Woman To Earn A Doctorate In Stem

Graduation day for Amie Fornah Sankoh was more than the completion of a degree. She became the first deaf Black woman to complete her doctorate studies in a science, technology, engineering, and math program in the United States.

According to Chemistry World, Sankoh was awarded her Ph.D. after graduating from the University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville’s biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology program.

A native of West Africa, Sankoh was sent to the U.S. to live with her father’s best friend at 12 years old after losing her hearing during the civil war. She struggled with her studies as a young deaf student; American doctors could not cure her deafness. Sankoh said she took a few years to learn American Sign Language.


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Mathematics was enjoyable for Sankoh as she found it to be more of a visual subject. “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,” she said.

In high school, she fell in love with more complex mathematics. That led her into chemistry, which excited her. “I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions–how the reactions occur–and then make predictions,’” she said.

Sankoh worked as a lab technician for Dow Chemical after high school. She obtained both her associate’s degree in laboratory sciences and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She found another laboratory position after college.

“I was participating in research and enjoying it, and learning and experiencing the beauty of it, and then started to discover my own potential,” Fornah explained. “And that led me to go ahead and enter the Ph.D. program at UT Knoxville.”

Sankoh was the featured speaker for UT’s Spring 2023 Graduate Hooding Ceremony. Her Ph.D. research focused on the effects of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions.