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“They told me I wasn't college material,” Chester recalls. “They told me my future held a job as a seamstress or a gas-station attendant.”
Her response was predictable. “I stopped trying to get good grades. I cut up in class and was sent to stand in the corner. That was not like me at all.”
Even after her mother convinced the school to revisit those test scores and Chester was moved into a high-achievers class, the self-doubt was hard to overcome. “It took me forever to regain my academic performance level,” Chester says. She eventually did, however, excelling in college and earning a Ph.D. in biology. But, she notes, “if six weeks of that kind of expectation and treatment could have such an effect on me, think what a lifetime of it could have on anyone.”
As a teacher at West Virginia University (WVU) in Morgantown, Chester was thus moved by the vast, unrealized potential she saw all around her. Nearly 20 percent of the residents of this small Appalachian state live in poverty. Fewer than 15 percent of West Virginians have college degrees, despite the enormous need there for qualified health-care workers and other trained professionals.
To help change the situation, Chester took charge of a federally funded campus program to draw minority and disadvantaged undergraduates at WVU to careers in science, medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy. Despite her best intentions, however, it didn't work. “We weren't getting [minority and disadvantaged] students,” she recalls. They were washing out of the educational system long before they got to college. “And we weren't keeping the ones we did attract.”
After this disappointing start, Chester rethought her approach and set new goals. She wanted to reach students at a younger age to support their interest in science and give them confidence in their own abilities to succeed. The program had to reach back into the high schools. And it had to root itself in the communities it served, not at the university in Morgantown.
With her new vision and determination to change the status quo, Chester, like other visionary educational mavericks, put modest resources to work to make enormous changes. And that's exactly what HHMI hopes its grantees will do with its funding. “We want to plant seeds that will grow into a new and more effective kind of science education,” says Peter J. Bruns, HHMI vice president for grants and special programs.