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What is my deaf way of science?


Professor Michele L. Cooke

Professor Michele L. Cooke

Photo by
John Solem

Michele L. Cooke

Professor of Geology

Academic success was not always expected of me. I have a severe-profound high-frequency hearing loss and was language delayed in my early education. The letters on the page don’t match the sounds that I hear, so it took until second grade for me to figure out the basics of reading. I also had years of speech therapy to learn how to pronounce sounds that I can’t hear. Just before middle school, some visual-based aptitude tests showed I actually had some talent and I also started to do well in math. So, then teachers started expecting more of me and as you probably figured out, I caught up well enough.

Now, as a professor at a university that serves a predominantly hearing community, my broken ears are a nuisance sometimes. But I don’t want to talk about overcoming challenges. Instead, I want to talk about something called “deaf gain.” This term coined by Gallaudet scholars describes the value that deaf and hard-of-hearing people provide to the larger community because of their differences. Our ecology colleagues tell us that more diverse ecological communities can better withstand stress than homogenous communities—so too with science communities. 

Deaf Gain - Dr. Michele Cooke

Here are three examples of deaf gain in my research approach:

Deaf gain 1: My way of doing research is intensely visual. My students know well that I have to show 3D concepts in the air with my hands and sketch whenever we do science. I don’t believe it until I can see it. We use the figures in our papers to tell the scientific story. In this way, my research is not about elegant verbal arguments and instead focuses on connections between ideas and demonstration of geologic processes.

Deaf gain 2: Deaf are known for being blunt. My students will tell you that my reviews can sometimes be painfully blunt. For deaf scientists, being understood is never taken for granted. So, we strive for clear and direct communication of our science.

Deaf gain 3: Being deaf in a hearing world requires stamina, courage, empathy, self-advocacy, a flexible neck to lip read people in the corners of the room and a sense of humor. An added benefit is being able to accessorize using blue hearing aids with blue glitter molds that match any outfit.

I’ve been lucky to have great students and colleagues who have joined up in my deaf way of science and we’ve had a blast.

From remarks by Michele L. Cooke upon receiving the 2018 College of Natural Sciences Outstanding Research Award for her work on how geologic structures develop in the crust of the earth. Associate Professor Ana Caicedo of the UMass Amherst department of biology and Professor Cooke recently launched a blog for deaf and hard of hearing academics,