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  August 30,  2004
Volume 82, Number 35
pp. 32-33

Summer researchers--deaf and hearing--at James Madison put a twist on hands-on learning

  Darla Konkel lounges in a small plastic chair and peripherally watches her fellow students chat while her equipment warms up. Their animated conversation catches her eye, but she remains apart for the time being, content to absorb the scene while eagerly taking in the readings on her computer monitor.

The group has just returned from lunch at one of the James Madison University (JMU) cafeterias, where conversation ranged from study-abroad experiences in Australia to debating the merits of Konkel's hometown of Frederick, Md.

"There's nothing to do in Frederick," Konkel had complained to her companions with a set expression. Going to the mall or the movies is about all the excitement to be had.

Not that there's much to do in Harrisonburg, one student pointed out. The small town in western Virginia is anchored by the JMU campus, but it is otherwise surrounded by crops and pasture land: The students agreed that you have to take entertainment wherever you can get it.

Despite a lack of local adventure, strong bonds are already forming among this gaggle of students who only recently met and who have disparate backgrounds. Some of them attend JMU year-round, while others come from nearby colleges. And not all of them are science majors. They are here as part of the school's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer program in chemistry sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

FAST TALKERS Anderson (from left), Konkel, Moore, Petrillo, and Sprague quickly found common interests in the JMU chemistry labs.

NOTHING IN THIS description sounds exceptional at first--after all, 66 other schools across the country took part in chemistry REU programs in 2004. Konkel, however, is one of the main reasons the JMU program is unique: She and four of her fellow researchers are deaf.

While some REU participants at other schools work with foreign researchers or even travel to labs overseas, JMU students are breaking a different kind of language barrier. Konkel, a visiting student from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is profoundly deaf and only communicates using American Sign Language (ASL). Her on-site mentor, Michael L. Moore, is a chemistry professor at Gallaudet who is also deaf but communicates through a combination of sign and speech.

Moore is supervising Konkel's work on a project to test water samples from buildings on the Gallaudet campus for lead using graphite furnace atomic absorption (GFAA) analysis. Moore and Konkel will use their findings to draft a report the school administration can use to determine if its drinking water supply is being contaminated by corroded pipes, a risk uncovered in buildings throughout the District of Columbia earlier this year (C&EN, March 15, page 9).

"This opportunity allows our students to be exposed to equipment and instruments they would not have otherwise," Moore says, referring to JMU's GFAA instrumentation, which isn't available at Gallaudet's much smaller science department. "We are very grateful to James Madison and NSF," he says.

The summer of 2004 marks the sixth year JMU has welcomed deaf scientists to its chemistry REU program. Gina M. MacDonald, an associate professor of chemistry at JMU, first included a deaf high school teacher in her summer research in 1998 (C&EN, Nov. 15, 1999, page 33). Since then, deaf participation has evolved to incorporate many levels of science teachers and students, as well as communication sciences and disorders majors who are learning to interpret science terms into sign language.

"Finding the first deaf people to come here was hard," MacDonald says. When inspiration struck after observing a group of deaf teenagers at a local shopping mall, she started making phone calls without much prior knowledge of the challenges her proposal would face.

Luckily, she says, one of the first people she contacted was Brenda C. Seal, a professor in JMU's department of communication sciences and disorders. Seal served as a bridge between the chemistry department and the local deaf community, helping MacDonald not only find willing candidates but also coordinate the logistics of introducing deaf scientists into her hearing lab.

According to the National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders, nearly 28 million U.S. citizens have some type of hearing impairment. A large percentage of these people are those who have lost their hearing as they age, but two to three out of every 1,000 U.S. babies are born deaf or hard of hearing. Still, since deaf people show few outward signs of difference, many in the hearing world might easily overlook their deaf neighbors and give little consideration to their needs.

"I was surprised at how the deaf culture can be such an invisible community," says Daniel M. Downey, a JMU chemistry professor and director of the REU program.

SOMETHING FISHY Using part of a fish's inner ear, Gallaudet student Berrigan hopes to improve the process for testing waterways for mercury.

With grant money from NSF plus matching funds from JMU and its Office of Disability Services, Downey, MacDonald, and Seal updated the chemistry department to accommodate deaf participants. They installed teletypewriter devices (TTYs) and fire alarms that light up as well as ring. They also hired a professional ASL interpreter to help during lectures and be on hand for part of the lab period.

Seal later introduced student interpreters into the summer REU program as a way of encouraging her students to consider a career facilitating deaf scientists. The program not only teaches interpreters a whole new vocabulary of science terms, it also helps them learn how science is communicated.

Professional interpreters often feel insecure interpreting the sciences because their degrees are usually in language or special education fields, Downey says. Even at JMU, where most majors are required to take at least six credits of general science, student interpreters often don't get enough lab experience to feel comfortable interpreting scientific research.

To nonscientists, "the language of chemistry is not conversational and is highly dependent on pronouns," Seal asserts. "The student interpreters have to learn to provide the equivalent between an auditory message and its concept." For example, interpreters must recognize the scientific use of slang words or words with multiple meanings so that their interpretations are understood in context.

"You have to have visual and cognitive understanding of the situation to portray the right picture," says Stephanie Petrillo, one of the two JMU student interpreters chosen by Seal to assist in the chemistry labs this summer.

"You can't skip anything; every detail is important," adds her fellow interpreter Heather Sprague. Seemingly minor considerations like where to stand in relation to a demonstration and how to correctly spell chemical names can make a big difference for the deaf researchers involved.

One of Seal's main learning tools is to videotape the student interpreters as they work and have them evaluate each other's positioning and use of different signing gestures. During downtime in the lab, the interpreters watch video compact discs that Seal has made of science instructors working with deaf students via interpreters. Seal has distributed these videos at conferences to help others with science-oriented interpreter training.

"The language of science requires much more skill to interpret" than that of nontechnical fields, Gallaudet's Moore says. "I feel it should be taught as a specialty," just as interpreters can be specially trained to assist during legal proceedings.

No matter what topic is being addressed, attitude likely plays a major role in an interpreter's effectiveness. Both Petrillo and Sprague, neither of whom has a background in chemistry, are relaxed and gregarious in what for them amounts to a foreign environment. Sitting on a low couch near Konkel's workstation, they alternate between watching their training video and sparking conversation with students both hearing and deaf, their hands constantly in motion as they sign and speak aloud simultaneously.

THE INTERPRETERS, however, are not the only ones bridging the auditory divide. Amid the bustle of post-lunch discussion, James Anderson, a JMU chemistry undergraduate, works side by side with Gallaudet student Jennifer Berrigan on a project to devise a new test for mercury contamination in waterways.

The pair test the otolith--a calcareous part of the inner ear--of fish from a local river with known levels of mercury pollution to determine how the heavy metal bioaccumulates as the fish grows. They hope to develop a new testing standard using the otolith that will be easier and create fewer toxic by-products than current testing methods using fish tissues.

Berrigan has enough residual hearing to accurately lip read as well as sign, and she speaks clearly. She and Anderson, who is not fluent in ASL, communicate freely even without an interpreter nearby. Such positive interaction between the two cultures is exactly what MacDonald hopes to achieve.

"I truly believe that students in this program will be more apt to hire, teach, and work with a deaf person," MacDonald says. "No matter what they do after they graduate, they'll have learned to think in a different way."

According to Moore, experiences such as the JMU program and other types of internships are vital to successfully integrating deaf people into the working world after graduation. In addition, the JMU program specifically offers hearing and deaf students valuable lab experience that might influence their ultimate decision about pursuing a research career.

"I originally thought this project would be a big bore, but I'm enjoying it now," Konkel says from her post in front of the computer screen. The statement isn't just lip service: Even without understanding the hand gestures, the rest of her body language speaks volumes about her growing love of chemistry.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

Related Stories
Lab program includes deaf scientists
[C&EN, Nov. 15, 1999]
Drinking Water Review Planned
[C&EN, Mar. 15, 2004]

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