Student to develop new sign language for science

A University of Dundee student is taking matters into his own hands this summer as he develops new sign language for specialist biological terms currently missing from formal British Sign Language (BSL).

Liam Mcmulkin, a second year Life Sciences student who has been deaf since birth, came up with the idea after becoming frustrated at the lack of complex scientific terms in BSL.

BSL is used by approximately 87,000 people across the UK but the scientific lexicon effectively stops at advanced higher level/A-level in school, meaning complex terms which are used in cutting-edge research have to be spelled out to students like Liam.

The current finger-spelling of ‘deoxyribonucleotide’ and ‘deoxyribonucleoside’ means that the difference between each term is only made clear at the end, making them both confusing and potentially hazardous to students conducting experiments.

Liam said, “I am delighted to be able to develop signs which can improve science for BSL users, terms which I need to use every day.

“Being a deaf student can be challenging but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to meet world-leading scientists from across the University and develop signs that may make a significant difference to anyone dreaming of learning and leading in the sciences.”

Liam’s summer project is being funded by a Gurdon / Company of Biologists Summer Studentship from the British Society for Developmental Biology (BSDB). Alongside his communications support worker Anne Whittaker, Liam is developing over 100 new signs which will go to review in August. They hope the new signs will be able to allow even more students access the sciences in further education.

Dr Marios Stavridis, Principal Investigator at the School of Life Sciences and supervisor of the project, said, “Liam’s effort towards creating new signs is crucial to the future of the life sciences. During his two years of study he has already developed signs for biology specialist terms ‘on the fly’ and it will be so rewarding to see these terms used in BSL.

“If you imagine having to finger spell highly technical terms whilst sitting in a lecture or having a quick conversation with a colleague, you can appreciate how taxing and difficult it has been for Liam. With these signs Liam and other deaf students will be able to access science on a whole other level.”

The signs which Liam develops will be reviewed at a national conference and may be adopted into BSL afterwards. The conference will be held in the University’s Dalhousie Building on Tuesday 8th and Thursday 10th August, 2017. Those interested in attending the conference can register here:

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