How deaf researchers are reinventing science communication

How deaf researchers are reinventing science communication
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    (soft music)
    - [Narrator] So, there's this little bacterium
    that lives in ticks, Anaplasma phagocytophilum.
    It's a nasty microbe
    that causes a disease called anaplasmosis.
    Fever, aches, vomiting and if it's not treated,
    organ failure and death.
    Lorne Farovitch is a grad student
    at the University of Rochester
    and he's studying tick-borne diseases like anaplasmosis.
    He wants to understand how these diseases spread
    and how to better test for them in people.
    Lorne is also deaf.
    His first language is American Sign Language, or ASL.
    That wouldn't be a problem for his work,
    except that if he wants to discuss Anaplasma phagocytophilum
    in ASL, this is currently the best option.
    - [Interpreter] A-N-A-P-L-A-S-M-A
    P-H-A-G-O-C-Y-O-T-O-P-H-I-L-U-M,
    Anaplasma phagocytophilum.
    - [Narrator] Thankfully there's a better way.
    It just means inventing new science language from scratch.
    - Well, I have my protocol here
    and it explains the steps I need to take
    for each part of the process,
    and the first step is for me to make antigens.
    - [Narrator] Lorne is working on a PhD
    in translational biomedical sciences.
    Basically, he does lab research,
    but also works on real-world public health problems
    at the same time.
    We interviewed Lorne
    with the help of a couple interpreters.
    They translated our questions into sign language
    and Lorne's responses into English.
    So that's the extra voice you'll hear.
    Anyway, Lorne walked us through his work.
    - [Interpreter] The first project, I'm collecting ticks
    and I'm analyzing their global distribution
    and what kind of diseases they carry
    in what geographical areas.
    And that information should help me with my second project,
    which is to test these ticks
    about what pathogens they're carrying
    and develop a new diagnostic test.
    - [Narrator] Lorne is using a new tool
    called Arrayed Imaging Reflectometry.
    It allows him to test a single blood sample
    for lots of diseases at once, like Lyme disease,
    Rocky Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis.
    Basically, he prints multiple disease samples
    onto a small chip and then coats the chip in antibodies
    from the blood sample in question.
    If the antibodies bind with any one disease,
    Lorne will get a positive ID.
    The system lets him run about 400 tests simultaneously.
    Lorne's been in science for a decade,
    five years for a dual undergrad degree,
    two years in a master's program,
    and this is year three of a five-year PhD,
    but all the while science itself
    has been a language barrier
    that's made his work just a little harder
    than it ought to be.
    - [Interpreter] When I really started
    to get into the sciences, there were, of course,
    there's a lot of jargon, a lot of vocabulary there
    and there just don't exist the signs for these terms.
    There's new discoveries happening all the time.
    There are new vocabulary words being established
    and ASL it's hard to keep up with all of these new terms.
    - [Narrator] ASL is its own unique language,
    distinct from English, with its own grammar,
    syntax, vocab, you name it.
    When there isn't a good sign for an English word,
    it's common to just spell it out using ASL letter by letter,
    but lots of fingerspelling is a drag.
    It grinds communication to a halt.
    Again, consider that bacterium, Anaplasma phagocytophilum.
    - [Interpreter] Fingerspelling would be like
    someone spelling A-N-A-P-L-A-S-M-A
    P-H-A-G-O-C-Y-T-O-P-H-I-L-U-M.
    It's the process of looking at someone just spelling
    over and over again the same terms.
    Students are gonna disengage.
    That's not interesting.
    - [Narrator] The solution is to help ASL catch up
    by inventing new signs.
    Lorne contributes to two efforts called ASLCORE
    and ASL Clear.
    Both convene groups of deaf experts in fields like science,
    technology, engineering and math,
    also called the STEM fields.
    They discuss terms that don't have widespread signs
    and they make new ones.
    So what does that actually look like?
    We asked Lorne to show us some examples.
    First, look at DNA.
    - [Interpreter] D-N-A.
    - [Narrator] Lorne could fingerspell D-N-A,
    but now he uses this.
    The sign captures the double helix structure of DNA.
    You can actually see it
    in a way that you couldn't possibly in English.
    - [Interpreter] DNA is a double helix shape.
    RNA is a single strand.
    - [Narrator] Or go smaller.
    Atom, proton, neutron, electron.
    - [Interpreter] This is a sign for atom.
    In the center includes neutrons and protons, as the nucleus,
    and surrounding them is the electron cloud, hence atom.
    - [Narrator] Each sign captures the way that protons,
    neutrons and electrons all comprise atoms.
    Macrophage might be Lorne's favorite.
    - [Interpreter] Macrophages are signed to this way
    because our body relies on their function
    of cleaning up things in the body.
    They eat pathogens and other things in the body.
    They look like little Pac-Men, so macrophage.
    - [Narrator] Or there's metastasis,
    which is a little scarier.
    - [Interpreter] Here's the sign for metastasis.
    This is showing visually the process of how cancer
    is spreading throughout the body,
    how the cells are going everywhere within the body.
    - [Narrator] The new signs that Lorne helped create
    are published online, so anyone in the world can use them.
    And thanks to the Internet,
    there are more resources than ever before.
    There are other specialized video dictionaries,
    crowd-sourced forums,
    where signs are shared more ways than ever,
    for the deaf community to create and share language.
    But all these new signs are only useful
    if they're used and standardized.
    - What tends to happen
    is that a school for the deaf,
    or a college with deaf students,
    will have a word in a STEM discipline
    and they will create their own sign for it.
    It won't be the same as the sign in another institution,
    or sometimes students will go to one class
    and they will see one teacher using the sign
    that that teacher has, or go to another class
    in the same discipline
    and another teacher will use a different sign.
    - Geoff Poor is a retired professor
    at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
    He's also my dad, which is how we found out
    about the story in the first place.
    Over the past few years,
    he's traveled to schools all around the country
    to collect signs for the STEM fields and he's helped build
    a different video dictionary altogether.
    Now multiple dictionaries can lead to conflicting signs.
    For example, here's the sign for molecule
    on Geoff's dictionary.
    Here it is on ASLCORE,
    and here it is on another site called HandSpeak.
    But that might be okay,
    more dictionaries mean more ideas are shared
    and in time one of those signs will probably take over.
    - The the energy, the process that's important is,
    which one of those signs is the most useful
    for that language community?
    That's what happens when an outside word
    comes into any language.
    And again, it's a meritocracy.
    The best signs will win.
    - [Narrator] Lorne knows better than most
    that science communication can make a difference
    far outside the lab.
    The final goal of his dissertation
    is to make information about tick-borne illnesses
    more available to deaf people.
    The work is urgent.
    Climate change is helping ticks expand their territories,
    putting more people at risk
    and often deaf people are not well-served
    by the information that's out there.
    - [Interpreter] Typically public health doesn't have
    that kind of system set up to make things fully accessible.
    So we want to make sure people are aware of the risks.
    Often you see posters
    where things are listed out in different languages,
    but there's no sign language there,
    so it's leaving deaf people out
    and putting them at higher risk.
    - [Narrator] Ultimately, new science signs
    might have the biggest impact on the next generation
    of deaf students.
    Lorne thinks that they're often failed
    by English first education.
    But with the right resources,
    they have a chance to see science
    in a totally different light.
    - [Interpreter] Well, when I was growing up,
    the teacher would fingerspell a lot.
    And it was a struggle to get through.
    I never really had an interest in science
    in academic settings growing up until I went to college
    and I had teachers that were able to spark my curiosity more
    when it comes to science.
    And I realized that science was interesting
    and it was something I wanted to get into,
    and so I'm trying to change that with this group,
    that's trying to come up with these signs.
    So hopefully, the next generation of kids
    won't have the same experience that I did.
    - So, if you want to learn more about this,
    we put links to a couple of these video dictionaries
    in the description.
    They're really worth exploring.
    They will teach you a lot about American Sign Language
    and honestly a lot about science too.
    So, check 'em out.
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