News Release

First deaf, Black woman receives her PhD in a STEM discipline

Reports and Proceedings

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith and Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh work on plants in the lab.

image: Left-Right: Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith and Dr. Amie Fornah Sankoh work on plants in the lab. view more 

Credit: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

ST. LOUIS, MO - May 8, 2023 – Graduate student Amie Fornah Sankoh recently stood in front of 150 colleagues family and friends at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to defend her thesis, Investigating the Effects of Salicylic acid on Intercellular Trafficking via Plasmodesmata in Nicotiana benthamiana. Upon her successful defense, Dr. Amie Sankoh became the first Deaf, Black woman to receive a PhD in any STEM discipline. 

Completing a PhD is a challenging undertaking for anyone; to do so without easy access to the kinds of verbal communication that hearing people take for granted, along with the unique challenges of being a Black woman in science, requires a whole different level of determination

Reflecting on her achievement, Sankoh said, “I believe we are all born to do what ‘can’t’ be done.”

Sankoh joined the Danforth Center along with Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith and her lab in 2021. As a PhD student from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, her research focused on intercellular signaling in plants. 

“Anyone who knows Amie will tell you that she is not one to be easily deterred,” said Burch-Smith.  “She took on the challenge of getting accepted and completing grad school as a Deaf person in an environment that had never had a Deaf PhD student. Amie is always smiling, and warmly greets everyone she encounters. She accomplishes things even though she is terrified – and this PhD is no exception.”

Burch-Smith had previous experience working with Deaf undergraduate students and was one of Sankoh’s biggest supporters. Within the lab, she established a policy to ensure that Sankoh had equitable access to everything: “If Amie couldn’t do it, nobody could do it,” she said.

“Graduate school comes with a lot of requirements. Having a mentor who advocates for me and accommodates my educational needs, and a supportive collaborative community of colleagues lifts a huge burden from my shoulders and prevents me from feeling isolated,” Sankoh said. “At the Danforth Center I did not feel like a Deaf person struggling to make it. I felt like a scientist.” 

The Danforth Center community has greatly benefitted from Amie’s kind and collaborative spirit. “I am proud of the many ways in which the Danforth Center embraced and included Amie,” said Danforth Center President and CEO Jim Carrington. “She is a pioneer who has earned our respect, admiration, and appreciation, and who has taken the Danforth Center to a better place.”

Amie may be the first person to achieve this milestone, but she knows that she will not be the last. “My one take-home lesson moving forward is that the unique life experiences of all disabled and non-disabled people alike bring different perspectives to research advancement, problem-solving, and innovation to the world.” 

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education, and outreach aim to have impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and through the generosity of individual, corporate, and foundation donors. Follow us on Twitter at @DanforthCenter.

For more information contact:
Karla Roeber, Vice President, Public and Government Affairs,


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