Listening… and Watching… and Learning

Animated GIF of a Deaf person on a video chat signs "health" and "practice" to a room of five colleagues

Last year we announced with excitement our launch of a novel training program named NIH Summer Research and Education (R25) designed to enhance diversity in the fields of biomedical informatics and data science by engaging young people who are undergraduate and early graduate students in an intensive summer program. Well, we are delighted to announce that this summer, there are 12 innovative programs around the country, each of which is offering a special, unique training opportunity to more than 120 trainees in these exciting fields! I encourage you to view NLM R25 Training Program: Supporting a New Generation of Scientists to learn more about this novel research and education effort.

Map of the United States with R25 program grant sites
This map details the 12 sites participating in the NLM R25 Program.

As part of our commitment to diversity in training, I visited each program, either in person or virtually, accompanied by Meryl Sufian, PhD, Chief Program Officer of NLM Extramural Programs.

Each visit followed the same pattern: About two weeks before our scheduled time, the training directors and trainees were asked to view three videos—one describing NLM, one highlighting this training program, and one from a selection of videos describing one of our research programs. The trainees posed three to five questions. Then Meryl and I spent 30 minutes with each program team responding to these questions and providing information about additional training resources offered by NIH/NLM.

So far this has been a fantastic experience for me (and I hope for the trainees, too). I learned so much from the questions posed by these young people. They have an odd way of holding me accountable to creating a future that they can be a part of.

Recently, Meryl and I visited in person with the trainees at the Gallaudet University/University of Pittsburgh training program at Gallaudet University. We met with about 10 trainees, several of whom were deaf or hard of hearing and were drawn from across the country to the program. They asked about the challenges of diversifying the field of biomedical informatics and what the government was doing beyond specialized training opportunities.

The experience of speaking to an audience of deaf and hard of hearing participants brought me many insights. For one, I discovered how instinctively I turned to the person whose voice I could hear and the sudden realization that the person who was actually communicating with me stood to my right, using American Sign Language to communicate. Throughout the morning, I worked to keep my focus on the individual imparting the message and not on the one who was translating it for me.

I also got some interesting insights about how biomedical informatics will become better by engaging people who are deaf. I began to realize that most of what I know about terminology and knowledge formalizations—two of the key contributions of biomedical informatics—is largely based on spoken languages, mainly English or languages spoken in the northern hemisphere. American Sign Language (ASL) is its own language that offers many more ways to express meaning (movement, gesture, expression) than American English, and there are concepts unique to ASL that lack a spoken equivalent. Additionally, like any other language, ASL develops vocabulary and meaning from the extant understanding of words and the cultural context of expression.

Thus, by actively engaging the Deaf community through training projects like NLM’s R25 program, everything about biomedical informatics will improve. We will learn new expressions of health through the experience of someone who knows ASL and develop new informatics approaches to create terminologies and formalize these expressions. By following the lead of the Deaf community, we, as a scientific community, will develop an understanding of where translations and transliterations suffice and where they are incomplete. We will be challenged to create new applications of computer vision and artificial intelligence interpretation that will capture the gestures and body movements of individuals who communicate without speaking.

Dr. Ben Bahan, a recently retired professor of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, said that “what benefits the deaf, benefits the world”—we all experience the value of captions when viewing a TV show in a noisy room or the added information provided by alt text placed on images and slides. Thanks to these young trainees and their professors, the field of biomedical informatics will benefit from the leadership and engagement with the Deaf community to understand the world through diverse communications strategies.

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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