Better Communication, Better Science

Alexandre and Barnajeet
Dr. Gladys Alexandre, left, and REU participant Reena Barnajeet.

In 2015, researcher Dr. Gladys Alexandre learned something valuable: the addition of Reena Barnajeet, a hard of hearing student, to her lab improved the communication skills of everyone in the group. The experience was so valuable that Dr. Alexandre, who is Professor and Associate head of the Department of Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Program for Excellence and Equity in Research (PEER) at University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), began recruiting deaf and hard of hearing students to participate in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in her lab.

Barnajeet was the first hard of hearing participant at Dr. Alexandre’s lab. “Because my lab partners and I developed ways to communicate effectively I was encouraged and proved myself capable of performing experiments that needed to be done,” she says. Barnajeet plans to build on her undergraduate degree in biomedical science with a graduate degree focusing on genetics, development, and stem cells. “If I could do the UTK internship again, I would do it in a heartbeat!” says Barnajeet.

A total of five deaf or hard of hearing students have now spent research time in Dr. Alexandre’s lab; Alexandre has recruited another four who were placed in other UTK biology labs. The ongoing collaboration between lab personnel and the students has enabled lab personnel and teaching staff to adjust teaching and presentation styles. As a result, lab personnel now use voice-to-text technology; monitor conversations to ensure only one person speaks a time; consciously speak more clearly and concisely; write clearer, more systematic research plans and lab protocols; and conduct visual and hands-on training instead of relying on the spoken word. All the deaf or hard of hearing students have fully participated in poster sessions–an accomplishment that Dr. Alexandre had not recognized was possible.

Dr. Alexandre has also modified her approach to recruiting new students, collaborating with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) to recruit REU participants. And whereas she once relied solely on written submissions and personal interviews to assess candidates, she now recognizes that enthusiasm and commitment can be key indicators of a candidate’s potential.

Dr. Alexandre’s success is being noticed: this year Amie Sankoh, who is deaf, is enrolled in UTK’s Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology program as a graduate student. Working in another campus biology lab, Sankoh is already helping lab personnel recognize and resolve communication barriers. Among the surprises to lab personnel was that not all deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate; there are few ASL signs for words commonly used in STEM fields; and, it’s not necessarily easy to find an interpreter capable of transmitting required information. “She has a lot of grit,” Dr. Alexandre says of the student. “She’ll be a tremendous asset to our program.”

This summer, two deaf or hard of hearing students will spend about 10 weeks at Alexandre’s lab as REU participants. Their experience is supported by a supplemental funding award attached to MCB award 1715185.

“Our [deaf and hard of hearing] students offer a unique perspective,” says Alexandre. “Our students in general are now more mindful that there are many ways to learn and to solve a problem,” she adds.  “This experience has made me realize the need to be more inclusive so that science–and the public–can benefit.”


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