“Do you have plants, animals or seeds with you?” It’s a question travelers get asked before entering the United States after taking a trip abroad.
“The reason they're asking is that you mustn’t introduce anything foreign into our agricultural system,” said alumna Deirdra Chester, Ph.D. '03, a science advisor with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Our job is to make sure that we protect American agriculture related to plants and animals.”
As a science advisor for the USDA, Chester is part of a team of scientists whose task is to make sure anything that could potentially harm the United States is kept out. Preparation for a role in government took years of education and persistence, and it all started in the state of Florida. “I am happy I chose this path, although it has not always been easy,” she said.
In 1992, Chester was inspired by a food science class to secure her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nutrition and food science from Florida State University. In 1998, she chose to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree. Her grades, grit and determination landed her the prestigious McKnight Doctoral Fellowship, awarded at the time to African Americans pursuing postgraduate degrees in Florida—the fellowship has since opened its applicant pool to include Hispanics.
Chester applied and was soon accepted to the Ph.D. program in Dietetics and Nutrition at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. It’s there where she learned she wanted to work in government and not academia.
“You work hard to get through a Ph.D. It’s very grueling, and you’re constantly proving yourself,” she said. “What I realized with academia is that it’s the same concept. I was open to teaching on the side, but I felt I could make an impact as a government scientist.”
After graduating, Chester secured a scientist position with the USDA – an agency she’s been working with for 18 years. She credits her Ph.D. with helping prepare her. “If you can get a Ph.D. and do the dissertation and get out the door, it puts you in a position that you can pretty much do anything and navigate any system.”
As a Black scientist, finding mentors who looked like her was vital to her success.
“When I was a scientist at one of my previous positions, there were about 3,500 scientists, and only about 4 or 5 of us were African American,” she said. “So, it’s the reason why I mentor young people. I don’t restrict mentorship to only Black students. However, if I have a full plate of mentees and a young Black student needs support, I create space for that person.”
When asked what advice she’d give to Black students who may want to follow in her footsteps, she shared: “The first most important thing I want them to know is that they belong. The second is to seek out those mentors that look like you. When you feel like crying and giving up, you need a mentor you can look to and say to yourself, hey, if that person successfully navigated this, I can do it also.”
As for what she hopes for, Chester says, “I hope that people of color can show up and showcase their gifts and talents without someone having preconceived notions of who they are.”