For the deaf, talent and hard work may not be enough to succeed in the sciences. According to the National Science Foundation, deaf Americans are vastly underrepresented in the STEM fields, a discrepancy that has profound economic implications.
The problem with STEM careers for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is that there are not enough ASL signs available.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals in the sciences earn 31 percent more than those employed in other careers, according to a 2010 study by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, N.Y., the largest technical college for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. But at the same time, in 2017, U.S. students with hearing disabilities earned only 1.1 percent of the 39,435 doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering.
One reason so few deaf students gravitate to science careers and may struggle to complete doctoral programs is the communication chasm between deaf and hard-of-hearing scientists and their hearing colleagues.
Lorne Farovitch is a doctoral candidate in biomedical science at the University of Rochester of New York. Born deaf and raised by two deaf parents, he communicated solely in American Sign Language (ASL) until reaching graduate school. There, he became frustrated at the large chunk of his workdays spent communicating with hearing lab mates and professors, time he would have preferred spending on his scientific work.
The problem with STEM careers for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is that there are not enough ASL signs available, says Farovitch. Names, words, or phrases that don't exist in ASL must be finger spelled — the signer must form a distinct hand shape to correspond with each letter of the English alphabet, a tedious and time-consuming process. For instance, it requires 12 hand motions to spell out the word M-I-T-O-C-H-O-N-D-R-I-A. Imagine repeating those motions countless times a day.
To bust through this linguistic quagmire, Farovitch, along with a team of deaf STEM professionals, linguists, and interpreters, have been cooking up signs for terms like Anaplasma phagocytophilum, the tick-borne bacterium Farovitch studies. The sign creators are then videotaped performing the new signs. Those videos are posted on two crowd-sourcing sites, ASLcore.org and ASL Clear.
The beauty of ASL is you can express an entire concept in a single sign, rather than by the name of a word.
"If others don't pick it up and use it, a sign goes extinct," says Farovitch. Thus far, more than 1,000 STEM terms have been developed on ASL Clear and 500 vetted and approved by the deaf STEM community, according to Jeanne Reis, project director of the ASL Clear Project, based at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Mass.
The beauty of ASL is you can express an entire concept in a single sign, rather than by the name of a word. The signs are generally intuitive and wonderfully creative. To express "DNA" Farovitch uses two fingers of each hand touching the tips of the opposite hand; then he draws both the hands away to suggest the double helix form of the hereditary material present in most organisms.
"If you can show it, you can understand the concept better,'' says the Canadian-born scientist. "I feel I can explain science better now."
The hope is that as ASL science vocabulary expands more, deaf and hard-of-hearing students will be encouraged to pursue the STEM fields. "ASL is not just a tool; it's a language. It's a vital part of our lives," Farovitch explains through his interpreter.
The deaf community is diverse—within and beyond the sciences. Sarah Latchney, PhD, an environmental toxicologist, is among the approximately 90 percent of deaf people born to hearing parents. Hers made sure she learned ASL at an early age but they also sent Latchney to a speech therapist to learn to speak and read lips. Latchney is so adept at both that she can communicate one-on-one with a hearing person without an interpreter.
Like Favoritch, Latchney has developed "conceptually accurate" ASL signs but she has no plans to post them on the crowd-sourcing sites. "I don't want to fix [my signs]; it works for me," she explains.
Young scientists like Farovitch and Latchney stress the need for interpreters who are knowledgeable about science. "When I give a presentation I'm a nervous wreck that I'll have an interpreter who may not have a science background," Latchney explains. "Many times what I've [signed] has been misinterpreted; either my interpreter didn't understand the question or didn't frame it correctly."
To enlarge the pool of science-savvy interpreters, the University of Rochester will offer a new masters degree program: ASL Interpreting in Medicine and Science (AIMS), which will train interpreters who have a strong background in the biological sciences.
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, opportunities in higher education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students have opened up in the form of federally funded financial aid and the creation of student disability services on many college campuses. Still, only 18 percent of deaf adults have graduated from college, compared to 33 percent of the general population, according to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015.
The University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, home to NTID, have jointly created two programs to increase the representation of deaf and hard-of-hearing professionals in the sciences. The Rochester Bridges to the Doctorate Program, which Farovitch is enrolled in, prepares deaf scholars for biomedical PhD programs. The Rochester Postdoctoral Partnership readies deaf postdoctoral scientists to successfully attain academic research and teaching careers. Both programs are funded by the National Institutes of Science. In the last five years, the University of Rochester has gone from zero deaf postdoctoral and graduate students to nine.
"Deafness is not a problem, it's just a difference."
It makes sense for these two private universities to support strong programs for the deaf: Rochester has the highest per capita population of deaf or hard-of-hearing adults younger than 65 in the nation, according to the U.S. Census. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are about 136,000 post-secondary level students who are deaf or hard of hearing.
"Deafness is not a problem, it's just a difference," says Farovitch. "We just need a different way to communicate. It doesn't mean we require more work."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”