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How deaf researchers are reinventing science communication

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A cure for science jargon

What do synapses actually look like? Or macrophages, the cleanup crew of the bloodstream? Can you picture the process of metastasis, the spread of cancerous cells through the body? Science can feel pretty abstract in English: the words themselves don’t teach you much about the concepts they describe. They’re just necessary bits of jargon to be memorized. But some researchers are finding ways to translate this complex language and make it more accessible.

Lorne Farovitch is a graduate student in translational biomedical sciences at the University of Rochester (a jargon-y sounding program if ever there was one), and he’s working to turn science jargon on its head. Lorne is deaf — his first language is American Sign Language, or ASL. For deaf scientists like Lorne, ASL has the power to turn abstract, jargon-laden concepts into rich, visual representations. The ASL sign for DNA, for example, could be the three letters D, N, and A in quick succession — or, it could be this:

Lorne is involved in a couple of ambitious projects called ASLCORE and ASL Clear, each aimed at creating new ASL signs for the “STEM” disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). It’s urgent work for the deaf community: without access to the right terms, discussing, say, mitochondria means spelling out M-I-T-O-C-H-O-N-D-R-I-A in sign language — an often tedious process known as fingerspelling. With the right ASL terms, on the other hand, science comes alive for deaf students in a way that it couldn’t possibly in English.

Verge Science visited Lorne at his lab in Rochester, New York, and got a firsthand look at some of the new science sign language in circulation. Check out the video above to see for yourself.