Science in ASL is a whole different language: Interpreters in STEM

— Megan Majocha

Deaf and hard of hearing scientists often face a lack of communication access, which is troubling because they have made significant contributions to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields over the decades and diversify the STEM workforce. Therefore, sign language interpreters trained in science are critical to making STEM inclusive for deaf scientists. During my PhD journey in the past few years, I have slowly expanded my network of scientifically trained interpreters. Having worked with me for about three years, my scientific interpreters know my research and what I do. Having the same interpreters with me throughout my PhD is extremely important because it creates a communication barrier if the interpreter is not skilled in STEM vocabulary. Very often, science signs do not exist because STEM in American Sign Language is a specialized language, as are other signed languages. Although there are a few resources where deaf scientists meet and discuss signs for specific science words, the signs are not standardized yet and need to be developed (see Atomic Hands listing of different ASL STEM dictionaries). Furthermore, I had trouble finding scientific interpreters when starting my PhD, either because they were working with other deaf scientists already, or they weren’t available full-time. Consistency was essential for me, because interpreters will be able to pick up science-related language and signs as we go. My class and on-call interpreters should be consistent throughout the semester, so I require two interpreters full-time. In my experience, not all interpreters know science when they first start working with me, but their enthusiasm and commitment to learning the science make them good STEM interpreters.

drawings of finger alphabet for S T E M overlain on an blue washed image of DNA

It is one thing to translate from English into ASL, but translating from ASL into English is also challenging. People do not realize that I cannot practice my presentations alone. In order to prepare well, I have to practice with my interpreters ahead of time. Interpreters who don’t understand what is being discussed in meetings may cause major misunderstandings. For instance, some signs seem similar but have different meanings. Here are examples of such misunderstandings from my own experiences: 

  1. “Stain” and “dye” – When I said, “I stained my cells with crystal violet to perform cellular proliferation assays,” the interpreter would say, “I dyed my cells” instead of “I stained my cells.” In histology, it is important to note the difference between both words. A stain is a blend of dyes used to give contrast to different parts of the tissue used on a microscopic slide, while a dye is a reagent that colors specific molecules of tissue samples. 
  2. “Metastasize,” “spread,” and “disseminate” – When I said, “tumor cells metastasize to the lung,” the interpreter would say, “tumor cells spread to the lung,” which is the right concept, but “spread” isn’t the word I wanted to use.

I need to be very specific about which words I use. Such specificity is important in science, as it ensures that all scientists are assigning the same meaning to keywords. Having consistent interpreters assigned to us is essential so they become fluent in ASL of our discipline. Another consideration is that I need STEM interpreters voicing for me at all presentations and lab meetings, including one-on-one meetings. For these meetings, I provide some background information and a summary before each session to be extra prepared.Additionally, some science words sound similar to “everyday” terms that non-STEM interpreters might overlook. There was a time when I had a sub interpreter during a lab meeting in which mammary glands were being discussed. The interpreter said “memory” instead of “mammary.” At the time, I thought we were discussing memory cells in the immune system and could not adequately follow the lab meeting! 

Since starting my PhD, I have expanded my team of scientific interpreters to reflect the demands of my job. In addition to giving presentations at conferences, presenting data during lab meetings, and participating in networking events, an important part of science is chatting with colleagues about our work. Scientific interpreters facilitate all communication between my colleagues and me. Having qualified scientific interpreters for my classes and lab work has allowed me to focus on my career, instead of constantly worrying about communication.

Even so, I still face a barrier whenever I need to travel outside the region for a conference. To attend a recent conference, I asked the agency to send my preferred scientific interpreters, who have already voiced my prior presentations and are well acquainted with my work, to accompany me. I was informed that the agency was unable to send my preferred interpreters, but they could find me interpreters in the conference area. “How can I prepare for my poster presentation and attend networking events with interpreters who know nothing about my research?” Attending scientific conferences is a critical part of my scientific training, and I need scientifically trained interpreters to have the same access as the rest of the conference attendees. I will not be able to participate in this event if I am working with interpreters who do not have experience or do not have the expertise to translate the specialized language used in our lab. As a result of my mentor’s advocacy and my own advocacy, I was finally able to bring my STEM-trained interpreters with me to the conference.

It is important for deaf scientists to be able to focus on their research rather than using up energy trying to get access. A deaf scientist’s advocacy is crucial, as is their mentor’s advocacy. Our advocacy and clarity about the accommodations deaf scientists need will help ensure their success. We cannot assume everyone knows how to accommodate us, let alone know which interpreters are the best fit for us, but by persisting in efforts to have our needs met, we can normalize the respect that our accommodation requests deserve. 


A light-skinned woman with dark pulled back hair smiles to the camera while working at a lab bench. She wears calves and is handing vials under a fume hood.

Megan Majocha is a Tumor Biology PhD candidate at the National Institutes of Health/Georgetown University. Her research interests include breast cancer metastasis, cancer genomics, and epigenetics. As part of her thesis research, she investigates the role of metastasis susceptibility genes in breast cancer metastasis and the mechanisms that lead to them. Throughout her career as a deaf scientist, she has been interested in science communication to provide access to science to everyone. 

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