Expanding Horizons

Department of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology

BCMB student presenting

Diversity in the scientific workforce is on the rise thanks to numerous programs across the country engaging underrepresented minorities in science. One group, however, is absent from the scientific research workforce – the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Thanks to a research program in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB), outreach efforts to engage this population in research are gaining ground.

Gladys Alexandre, BCMB department head and professor, first initiated this effort in 2015 with a visit to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“I recruited one undergraduate student to work in my lab for summer research in 2015 as a pilot,” Alexandre said. “The internship was so successful that the next year, six students from NTID came to UT for summer research and worked in a variety of labs in BCMB.”

Today, the program includes a four-week paid summer research experience for deaf and hard-of-hearing high school students from Knoxville and Nashville who work in Professor Tessa Burch-Smith’s lab supported by an NSF CAREER award.

The internship experience includes research skills and professional and career development activities. Students present posters and engage in lab experiences in order to develop their own fascination with scientific research.

In addition to American Sign Language interpreters from the UT Office of Disability Services during large group meetings, BCMB personnel and NTID students take a more creative approach to daily communications. Use of digital voice-to-text apps and a constant use of notepads made communicating in the lab much easier than most of the mentors anticipated.

“The experiences are eye opening in terms of how lab communications and interactions are conducted and how to make them inclusive to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals,” Alexandre said. “These students are very bright, work hard, and pay close attention to the subject being discussed. We look forward to our ongoing outreach to this community of student scholars.”