As a director at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Tina draws on her own experience of studying science as a deaf person.
Time and patience
Tina's primary inspiration for studying chemistry was her younger brother, Kevin, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a BSc in chemistry and was also hard-of-hearing; she says “I elevated my passion and curiosity in science when I first explored his high school’s science textbook. The textbook’s pictures, structures, mechanisms and historic scientists were so fascinating to me. It somewhat made me want to be like those amazing scientists.”
Coming from Enping, Guangdong, China, Tina spent middle and high school in a class for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Canada. Fighting for an education equal to her peers, she faced numerous challenges. “Even though I could not comprehend both textbook and lectures, I encouraged myself to work harder. At that time, I barely understood English.” With higher education both expensive and competitive in China, her parents couldn’t help her, as they themselves had limited knowledge of English. “I was left with no choice, but the pencil saved my life; I copied and practiced the examples from the chemistry textbook. I also had my younger brother explain the topics to me and I often spent more than four hours on one problem.”
In an attempt to keep up, Tina regularly took extra classes at summer school and throughout the academic year, but she says, “there was no ASL interpreter provided; I followed the teacher by lip-reading and taking notes from the board.” She explains “learning chemistry is the biggest challenge for me due to secondary language plus my deafness. I had a hard time learning concepts and expressing my thoughts to a teacher. Later, I developed a strategy to look up definitions by dictionary or multimedia resources which improved my reading comprehension. It took time and patience.”
After high school, as an international student Tina went on to study for her first major in college: laboratory science technology (LST) at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), a college under the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in the US. The programme prepares students for employment as laboratory technicians, focusing on the application of real-world analysis in the fields of chemistry, biology and pharmaceuticals. She says, “I thought that I would never be able to get into university to receive a proper education, so coming to RIT was a big change.” Having the opportunity of academic support services both in, and outside, of lessons, and ASL interpreters for weekend exam review sessions, her self-confidence and self-advocacy has improved hugely. “I was happy that I wasn’t the only deaf student learning, experimenting and studying chemistry. It’s amazing to believe that we can use sign language to express chemical symbols and terminologies.”
“I am proud to say that I made a huge accomplishment by completing organometallic chemical research at the University of Rochester during my first Research Experience for Undergraduates Internship (REU). I got my research project published under the Center for Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis (CENTC), which was based on synthesizing cobalt (II) – bis (3,5-dimethylpyrazole-1-yl) acetate (bdmpza).”
Tina’s performance in the project was impressive, as she had yet to study advanced organic chemistry. With the help and support of her LST professor, Matthew Lynn, and supervisor William D. Jones she says “I’m truly blessed to have wonderful supporters throughout my life that enrich my experience, passion, encouragement, understanding and love for science.”
Tina is currently a graduate student involved in biomedical research with Dr. Robert Osgood, an RIT professor and mentor. She is working on a project she had previously been involved in for two years: finding specific serotypes of streptococcus mutans, bacteria found in human cavities that carry the causative agent for cardiovascular disease. Unable to complete the project and limited by her bioinformatics experience, Tina now spends her time on a graduate programme in bioinformatics to improve her skills in programming and generating bioinformatics tools, which she plans to use to complete the project.
Tina is very optimistic about the future. Between her research, graduate learning and role as director of programming at NTID Student Congress, she enjoys improving her leadership and communication skills whilst working with diverse deaf students and staff. She plans on continuing her research into computational biology both in data analytical and theoretical methods.
“I hope to work in an environment where professional employers understand fully how to work with deaf scientists and respect them. Communication is universally how we develop relationships and exchange information.” She explains that there are many ways that people communicate in the deaf culture rather than relying on lip-reading alone; signing, videophone (Purple3, ZVRS) captioned phone (Hamilton CapTel) and writing are just some examples.
Advice to others, Tina says “If you are going to become a chemist, I highly recommend you read chemistry journals and magazines to keep informed of the real world. Apply for cooperative education experiences and internships to gain work and practical experience, build confidence, expand your networking opportunities and develop new skills.”
“Don’t use your disability as an excuse that you can’t do it. Fight for your passion and turn your dream into reality. Prove what you’re capable of. Education is never-ending, so be willing to learn new things and accept new challenges. Reading is part of your responsibility. Read and practise as much as you can before enrolling at university.”
Words by Jenny Lovell and Tina Feng
Images courtesy of Tina Feng and Adan A. Ortiz
Published October 2014