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Research Experiences for Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Students

“Organisms across all biological kingdoms possess the common challenge of sensing and adapting to a changing and often hostile environment. How they respond to these challenges often represent a life or death decision that determines survival.”

 This statement captures the intellectual theme of the NSF-funded, BCMB-sponsored program “Undergraduate Research Experiences for Deaf Students in Systems Biology and Molecular Signaling: How Cells and Organisms make Decisions.” This program is co-directed by BCMB and the UT Center for Deafness.

 After a year hiatus due to COVID-19, we hosted our second cohort of REU students in the summer of 2021, which included 10 Deaf/hard-of-hearing (D/hh) biology/chemistry students as well as two hearing students with combined interests in the biological sciences and American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Culture. Students came from institutions across the US including traditional Deaf colleges (Gallaudet University and the National Institute of the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology), as well as various other institutions including Lawrence Technological University, the University of South Carolina, the College of New Jersey, and the Ohio State University.

 The students conducted independent research projects in BCMB labs, as well as within participating partners at the UT Institute of Agriculture, the chemistry department, and the College of Engineering. Student projects were interdisciplinary and employed a variety of approaches including genetics, genomics, bioinformatics, physiology, biochemistry, and chemistry to study how various organisms sense and respond to their environments. Studies ranged from investigations of the maize microbiome in response to pathogens to the fabrication of “lab on chip” biosensor micro-devices.

In addition to performing innovative scientific research, students also participated in various professional development workshops including how to frame a research problem and conduct of hypothesis-driven research, data analysis, and scientific communication strategies by poster and oral presentations. A particular highlight of the program was a career panel on “Pursuing a Professional Career in STEM as D/hh students: Challenges and Goals.” Pepsi Holmquist, a Deaf biophysics scientist and visiting assistant professor from Rochester Institute of Technology, presented a seminar on her personal experience pursuing a PhD and academic career titled “Deaf Heart, Scientist Mind.”

 The REU scholars also participated in an outreach meeting by visiting with local D/hh high school and middle school students to share their personal experiences in the program. The program culminated with in a half-day symposium sponsored by the BCMB department during which all student gave oral presentations on their research findings, followed by a poster session. The program will run for one additional summer; more information is available at bcmb.utk.edu/reu.