September 9, 2009

Signs of Progress

Peggy Cebe’s science boot camp gives deaf and hearing-impaired students a leg up in research—and self-confidence

By Marjorie Howard

A student raised her hand, and Prof. Peggy Cebe nodded for her to speak. But when the young woman asked a question, Cebe couldn’t hear what she was saying. Even in a small room, with maybe 15 students, Cebe struggled to make out words that reverberated as if she were in a large box.

“I just love teaching students things they’ve never done before and seeing them master something that’s completely new to them,” says Peggy Cebe, here with intern Ashley Speranza. Photo: Joanie Tobin

It was 1993 and Cebe, a professor of physics, discovered she was suffering from hearing loss. As time went on, she realized she couldn’t distinguish between certain sounds—“bulb” and “ball,” for example. Even now, with the help of hearing aids, she sometimes strains to hear what students are saying in her classroom.

During a sabbatical in 2002, Cebe offered to give a lecture at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a leading college for students who are deaf or hearing-impaired. The response was so positive that it gave her an idea: give hearing-impaired undergraduates a chance to take classes at Tufts, where they could also conduct research and develop self-confidence.

Since Cebe created her summer Scientific Boot Camp in 2003, she has mentored 26 deaf or hard-of-hearing students, who assist her in conducting research on fuel-cell technology. The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, hosted four undergraduates from Gallaudet and the Rochester Institute of Technology this summer.

Many students have told Cebe the internship was a life-changing experience. It would appear it has changed her life, too. “I just love teaching students,” she says, “teaching them things they’ve never done before and seeing them get over the fear of equipment and master something that’s completely new to them.”

Over the course of the six-week research internship, students are responsible for finishing a project on fuel-cell technology. “Our aim is to discover something new so we can have something to publish,” Cebe says. “It’s hard, because that means the entire experiment happens in six weeks.” After the interns leave, Tufts graduate students working in Cebe’s lab complete follow-up research.

The interns are always listed as co-authors on the research, and Cebe tries to get the results of the summer project published in a professional journal. Since the program started five years ago, the interns’ work has resulted in three published articles; two more are pending.

“The interns’ work ethic is terrific; they are a model of what you want researchers to be,” says Cebe. “I feel when the students leave my group they could go and do research anywhere. They have improved self-confidence; they can synthesize the research.”

Cebe knows the letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language, but describes herself as being “painfully slow at it.” Her students sign at lightning speed, she says. But thanks to the Blackboard e-learning system, group discussions are possible as students and teacher use laptops to type instant messages to each other. In addition, every classroom and laboratory has pads of paper for them to write messages to each other.

The internship comprises both classroom learning and laboratory work. Students learn about polymers, which are natural, synthetic molecules that can be used as membranes in fuel-cell technologies. In the lab, they gain practical experience in making, characterizing and analyzing polymer blends and learning to use equipment such as an electron microscope.

During a recent lab when there were sign-language interpreters, this year’s interns demonstrated their projects, which were designed to test polymers under different conditions. Joshua Wilson, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, donned a white lab coat and purple latex gloves to demonstrate the effects of temperature changes on polymer film. Another RIT student, Ashley Speranza, explained how to use a glove box, a sealed compartment that allowed her to manipulate polymer films in an oxygen-free environment. Speranza pumped out the oxygen because the gas degrades polymers. Joining them were Roman Nawrocki and Christopher Sloan, both students at Gallaudet.

Some of Cebe’s former interns have gone on to work in labs; others are finishing their undergraduate degrees. Several have gone to graduate school, but not without some difficulty: some are turned away by schools that don’t think they can do the work because of their hearing impairment, she says.

“Some of these students are absolutely among the best I’ve had in my lab,” she says proudly. “It crushes me when they are rejected from graduate programs. One didn’t get into his first choice for graduate school in biochemistry, and he was the best student I’ve had.”

It also troubles Cebe when she learns how these students are treated out in the world. Nawrocki, for example, says he enjoyed Boston because people are friendlier than they are back in his home state of Florida. “People are willing to write back and forth to me,” he said, alluding to the practice of using pen and paper to communicate. “Where I’m from, they treat me as if I’m not too smart.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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