Deaf NCI Fellow Wins Awards with Assist from NIH Interpreting Team

​​​​Megan Majocha, PhD student, NIH-Georgetown Partnership Program​​​​​

Interview by Linda Kiefer​​​

Megan Majocha is a PhD student in Tumor Biology in the NIH-Georgetown Partnership program, in Dr. Kent Hunter's Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Genetics, at NCI, where they use integrated genetic and genomic technologies to better understand the heredity factors that contribute to the metastatic progression of breast cancer.

Recently, Megan received a travel scholarship to present her findings at the International Mammalian Genome Society (IMGC) conference in Vancouver.  Megan is D​​​​eaf and requested that her team of scientific interpreters, who are familiar with her scientific research concepts and signing style, accompany her to the conference.

I met with Dr. Hunter and Megan to discuss the limited options available to her, under NIH policy MC 2206, which states it is the responsibility of host organization to provide interpreters. If the host agency is outside of the DC Metro area and is unable to provide interpreters, NIH will provide contract interpreters from that locale, if available.  Since the interpreting contract had no scientific interpreters in the Vancouver area, the program would be able to provide contract scientific interpreters from this area, but not their travel expenses. With the conference just weeks away, Dr. Hunter's lab agreed to cover international travel costs.

This partnership between ORS and NCI made it possible for Megan to present her findings at the conference with her team of NIH interpreters, where she was awarded the Lorraine Flaherty Award for outstanding presentations at the Trainee Symposium. This award, given to the top three presenters, provides the opportunity to present at the plenary session. Megan's presentation at the plenary also won her a second award for most outstanding talk.

I sat down with Megan on Teams recently to learn more about her research, the conference, and what the Interpreting program means to her as a Deaf scientist.

  1. Tell me about your research? My thesis focuses on one understudied gene RESF1 and its role in suppressing tumors in ER-negative metastatic breast cancer, a less common type of breast cancer that's more challenging to treat and has poor treatment outcomes. Understanding this gene could lead to better treatment outcomes for these patients.
  2. How long have you been working in Dr. Hunter's lab? I started in 2018 as a post-bac fellow for one year. After completing that fellowship, I did a few other lab rotations before deciding to return to Dr. Hunter's lab as a PhD fellow.
  3. How does presenting at a conference like this impact your research and career​? It was my first in-person conference as a graduate student, and my first time to present my research in front of fellow researchers. It provided me with the opportunity to network with others in my field. Having my interpreters there allowed me to listen to other presentations, participate in discussions, and contribute to the daily conversations at the conference, which was the highlight of the conference experience for me!
  4. Where do you see yourself career-wise in 5-10 years? I'm interested in “science communication" finding ways to share my research with the public and making it accessible and easy for anyone to understand. The Deaf community gets most of its information thru ASL, and we need to communicate science in English and ASL in ways everyone can understand and receive equal access to information. We need more ways to share information thru social media, and I want to help make those connections.  At the same time, I want to pursue my cancer research where it leads.
  5. Why was it important to have your interpreting team there, rather than interpreters provided by the conference? I have been working with my interpreting team for several years. They know my signing style and understand my research conceptually. Even an experienced STEM interpreter might not be able to grasp what I want to say without being thoroughly briefed and/or having spent time with me in the lab.  It's different with ASL, which has standard signs making it easier for them to interpret even for someone they don't know well.  But scientific and technical terms don't have standardized signs. Sometimes we make them up as we go specific to our lab. Having to worry about how well the interpreter is interpreting what I am saying is a huge distraction from my presentation; that's why I prefer to bring my own. I've spoken to other deaf scientists who say they've had to lower their expectations and settle for what they can get. Others have given up the struggle and avoid conferences all together. I don't think we should settle and encourage them to advocate for themselves and all of us in the Deaf community.
  6. What was your backup plan if they hadn't been able to go? I thought I might have to attend virtually with my team; but I really wanted to experience it in person, especially for the networking, so Dr. Hunter and I advocated for my interpreters to accompany me.
  7. Have you experienced setbacks in your life/career/as a student because you didn't have the same access as your hearing peers? Do those experiences discourage you or drive you to overcome? As a freshman, during my first summer research internship, I wrote notes back and forth to communicate with others until I learned how to advocate for myself. Many of my graduate courses were audio-taped and shared with the class, which wasn't useful to me as a deaf student. So, I started asking my professors for transcripts of the audio, which they were willing to provide. The turning point for me was when I had to practice my oral presentation with slides in front of my professor, without an interpreter. I had arranged for one, but he was too busy to wait for the interpreter to show up. So, I signed my entire presentation to someone who didn't understand ASL. That was one of the most awkward and humiliating experiences I have ever had, and it was of no benefit to him or me, except I learned that advocacy was key to improving access.
  8. What was the highlight of your experience at the conference? The networking for sure and I learned a lot about mammalian mouse models!
  9. What do you enjoy most about working at NIH?  I enjoy working in Dr. Hunter's lab where I feel supported by him and connected to my peers. I also like working at NIH because the Interpreting program consistently provides top quality STEM interpreters, which frees me to focus on my research without worrying about how I'm going to communicate with my peers and colleagues.
  10. What advice and encouragement would you offer to other grad students? Advocate for yourself, be clear about what you want from others, and seize every opportunity!
  11. What would you like to say to NIH leadership about the Interpreting program and its importance to the Deaf community and the future of science? The Interpreting program at NIH is among the best programs anywhere.  NIH provides top quality STEM interpreters that are easy to access on demand. My NIH interpreters understand NIH culture and Deaf culture. They have enabled me to be me, and because of that I've been able to get accepted into top graduate programs. This is one of the primary reasons I came back to NIH to do my PhD program. Here, I don't have to fight to be heard.
  12. Where could we improve?  Overall, the interpreting services NIH provides is top quality. One ask would be to provide more STEM interpreters so there are enough to go around. Even at Georgetown there aren't enough. It would be great too if scientific interpreters could get some formal STEM training to establish some standard signs.

The NIH Interpreting Services program, under the Office of Research Services, has been serving the NIH community for over a decade by providing centrally funded, reliable, and easy-to-access services for patients, visitors and the entire NIH workforce. Our services dissolve communication barriers that hinder participation and erode confidence. They open doors to opportunity, foster more inclusive conversations that contribute to thoughtful solutions, and more discovery that can lead to better health outcomes for all of us. Megan's story is a testament to that fact. 


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