Skip to content

University of Tennessee Grad Makes History As First Black Deaf Woman To Earn A Doctorate in STEM

University of Tennessee Grad Makes History As First Black Deaf Woman To Earn A Doctorate in STEM

She’s the first in the nation!

Amie Fornah Sankoh was born in Sierra Leone, sent to the U.S. to live with a family friend at the age of 12 after losing her hearing during a civil war, Black Enterprise reports. Doctors were unable to cure her deafness and Sankoh admits she struggled as a child with school. After taking a few years to learn American Sign Language, Sankoh found her passion in mathematics. 

“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,” Sankoh recalled. 

Her love for math grew, eventually leading her to more complex math, and that’s how she began pursuing a career in chemistry. 

“I was able to learn about and see chemical reactions - how the reactions occur - and then make predictions,” she explained. 

After graduating high school, she took a job as a lab technician for Dow Chemical. She would go on to earn her associate's degree in laboratory sciences and a bachelor’s in biochemistry from Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. She continued to work in the lab, learning more about her field before enrolling in her doctorate program at The University of Tennessee. 

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


Now Sankoh has made history, earning her Ph.D. in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology at UT. Her research explored the biological communication of plants through the impact of hormones on plant-pathogen interactions. Sankoh is now the first Black deaf-woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) program. 

She served as the featured commencement speaker at UT’s Graduate Hooding Ceremony, recalling her journey. According to Chemistry World, Sankoh’s parents traveled from Sierra Leone to witness their daughter’s graduation. She is now taking a position at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri where she will continue her studies. She hopes to serve as a shining inspiration for others in and outside the deaf community to show that anything is possible.

“Hopefully, I will continue research and continue to be involved in outreach with the deaf community and advocating on its behalf…Maybe even able people themselves will be inspired, maybe they have doubt because graduate school is hard,” said Sankoh.

Congratulations Amie!

Cover photo: University of Tennessee grad makes history as first Black deaf woman to earn a doctorate in STEM/Photo Courtesy of Aime Fornah Sankoh/Twitter