It's a sign

An early interaction between two deaf optics community members leads to productive outcomes for technology- and science-specific American Sign Language
01 March 2024
By Daneet Steffens
Quantum. Photo credit: Ganga Sajith, Illinois Physics

An interview for the following story was facilitated by ASL interpreter Ben Pennica

Before I got into this kind of work, I had always enjoyed linguistics,” says doctoral student Colin Lualdi. “I think it’s fun to analyze languages. But once I started to really take a deep dive into my research as a graduate student, I realized that we need more tools for high-level science communication in American Sign Language (ASL). It was a perfect match for my existing interest in languages.”

“This kind of work” reflects the combined and committed efforts of Lualdi and David Spiecker. Spiecker and Lualdi are PhD students at the University of Rochester and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, respectively; Spiecker studies optics, while Lualdi’s focus lies in optical quantum information science. Both are also Deaf and highly engaged in the Deaf science community as science communicators, working with projects and organizations such as ASLCORE, Quantum ASL, and Atomic Hands—which Spiecker’s sister, Barbara Spiecker (a Deaf scientist with a doctorate in integrative biology), co-founded—to develop and grow the vocabulary and usage of technology- and science-focused ASL.

Their initial meeting was hardly auspicious: At the time, Spiecker was working as an admissions counselor at Rochester Institute of Technology and was in touch with Lualdi during Lualdi’s college application process. Afterwards, the two remained in irregular contact, which deepened when they both started their PhD studies. “At that point,” says Spiecker, “we were having a similar experience, finding that there was a limit of signed vocabulary for our specialties.” It was the start of a conversation, punctuated by brainstorming sessions, that continues to this day.

“Before I reconnected with David in the optics context,” says Lualdi, “I was studying physics in college and there were very few Deaf individuals with whom I could discuss my physics coursework in depth using ASL. Consequently, I did not have much exposure to science communication in ASL, and it was a challenge for my interpreters and me to navigate communicating physics in ASL. Once I re-connected with David in a research context, I realized that discussing science in ASL with Deaf people is an effective solution. In conversing with another Deaf person, ASL will naturally adapt to the content as we stimulate each other and ask, ‘Is this a good way to say this? Does this make sense in this context?’ And we can go back and forth, exchanging ideas, because we’re both engaging with the same physics content.”

That’s when they got involved in ASLCORE, a Deaf-centric project which develops ASL signs for a rich range of subjects from art, philosophy, and architecture, to biology, engineering, and physics. Their work with the other organizations and projects soon followed including Lualdi’s authorship with several colleagues on a 2023 article, “Advancing Scientific Discourse in American Sign Language,” published in Nature Reviews Materials.

That article, whose multiple contributors include Spiecker and her Atomic Hands co-founder Alicia Wooten (a Deaf scientist with a doctorate in molecular and translational medicine), is a discussion of the difference between literal and conceptual translation, and the impact that this difference can make in science communication through ASL. Coming up with signs that distinguish between “cup” and “beaker” is one thing, but how do you sign the concept of “quantum,” for example? And how does that sign get shared across the community? One answer lies in a terrific tale of success and serendipity.

ASL sign for polarization

Polarization. Photo credit: Ganga Sajith, Illinois Physics

“As a scientist,” says Lualdi, “I love testing and experimentation. If I encounter an idea for a new sign, I like to test it out and use it for maybe a few months or a year to see if it works. David and I were talking about a sign for ‘quantum,’ trying to figure it out. We had an idea for it, something that evokes the quantum scale, something very tiny,”—Lualdi signs this version of “quantum”—and the two of us and a few other people started to use that sign, and it seemed to work well. This past summer, I went to a physics conference and met a hearing professor. During our conversation, he excitedly mentioned that he wanted to share a sign that he learned.” Lualdi smiles. “That happens often because people are often eager to connect with Deaf individuals in ASL with signs like “hello,” or “how are you?”—and that’s great. But then that professor signed our version of  ‘quantum!’ He signed “quantum” to me, and I had never met him before. That sign had gotten around and had gotten back to me.”

But the story was even better than that. When Lualdi asked the professor where he learned the sign, it turned out that the professor had seen it at another event. “So that event had an ASL interpreter who used that sign,” says Lualdi. “That sign seems to have stuck, and that means our experiment worked—for that one.”

For science-related ASL, notes Spiecker, it’s often crucial to identify the root concept of a term in order to develop the appropriate vocabulary. “If you analyze the linguistics of ASL, you’ll notice that signs have different parts and parameters built into them. When you build the handshape, the sign retains elements of that root concept within it.” The sign for “energy,” for example, incorporates or is incorporated into related signs such as “work,” or “transfer of energy,” and it becomes clear that some concepts can be more of a challenge to translate or interpret than others. It helps, as Spiecker points out, that ASL is an established language—it just needs more people to be using it in scientific fields: “There is a lack of sign language in science and technology; that need has been identified. Now, more and more Deaf people are going into science fields, and that makes it even more important to have these conversations around how to express ourselves in our specific specialties.” The more people who get involved, he and Lualdi agree, the stronger the language will become, with more people looking for signs that represent concepts and ideas accurately.

While it’s important that the people who are interested in developing the language continue that work, it’s also critical to make that language accessible to researchers who need to utilize it. And those people, in turn, are key to developing even more field-specific ASL. “I’m a physicist,” says Lualdi. “But I know there’s the exact same challenge in biology and chemistry and even the humanities. How do we best convey technical content in ASL? It’s crucial that we share our strategies and approaches that we use to develop these signs, and then also share the language itself. In science, we have teachers, students, interpreters, and more—a whole community of people who use ASL to communicate with each other.”

Lualdi and Spiecker would love to see more Deaf people in optics—and in communication with each other. Last year, Spiecker gave a presentation at SPIE Optics + Photonics, “Single shot, spatially resolved simultaneous polarimetry and wavefront sensing,” using ASL. It was a good experience overall, he says, but one of his suggestions in a follow-up email was that it would have been great to have a video record of the conference. “There’s no recording, so my presentation as communicated in ASL is lost, and we lose that opportunity to reach a larger audience. In the Deaf community, we work to develop strategies to better spread this language, to reach teachers and to share online resources; we want to make more opportunities for people to see us, to have more stories like Colin’s where someone he’s never met is actually using vocabulary he helped to develop. I would love someday to communicate my work to a primarily signing audience and to have the audience participate in the discussion of that concept, not just me standing and lecturing. Colin and I have that together: We’ll discuss our research, and it’s really nice to be able to use the signs to communicate directly.”

“There’s a strong inventive element to our work,” agrees Lualdi. Resources like ASLCORE and Atomic Hands offer access not to just tools and methodologies, but to an entire community of Deaf scientists, one that Lualdi and Spiecker are pushing to grow. “We have to keep creating ways to disseminate this work,” says Lualdi, “to expand the community that we’re able to reach.” One way of doing that might be exposing Deaf children to science ASL, introducing them to the language and science at an earlier stage. “Developing science communication in ASL is a constant process,” notes Lualdi. “If you take a physics textbook—or any science textbook—and go to the index, you’ll find many words covering many topics. To date we’ve analyzed only a fraction of these, so there’s plenty left to do.”

Daneet Steffens is the SPIE Public Relations Manager.


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