Alumni Spotlight

Alumna appointed to serve as USDA Director for the Office of the Chief Scientist

Originally published on April 11, 2023 at

Written by Stephanie Rendon

After a nearly two-decade career in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), FIU alumna Deirdra Chester Ph.D. ’03 has taken on a new role as the department’s director for the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS).

The OCS provides strategic coordination of science initiatives to inform the federal government’s decisions, policies and regulations as they relate to U.S. food and agriculture. As the director for OCS, Chester is responsible for ensuring all research and science for the USDA is held to the highest levels of scientific integrity.

For her, leading OCS is the culmination of hard work and persistence — one that couldn’t have happened without the support she received from her parents in her earlier years.

“I’m a first-generation college student. Neither one of my parents went to college, but they were my biggest supporters,” Chester shared. “I know that they’re looking down and are very happy and proud of me.”

In 2019, to prepare her for a future leadership role, Chester applied and got accepted to the USDA’s competitive Senior Executive Service Candidate Development program — out of 1,200 applicants, only 40 were chosen. After completing the intensive nine-month program, she was equipped with the skills and experience needed to qualify for a senior executive position within the federal government.

Susan Himburg, Chester’s major professor at FIU, is proud to see how far her former student has gone since graduating from the university.

“It is a milestone in the profession of dietetics and nutrition that an FIU graduate would be chosen to supervise scientists in all disciplines within the USDA,” she said. “It has been exciting to watch Deirdra blossom further in the USDA — it’s where she got hired right out of school.”

Chester previously led the Division of Nutrition at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) where she was responsible for funding nutrition research across universities and colleges. In a previous role at NIFA, she was a national program leader, charged with identifying emerging issues of national importance and leading grants management in the areas of nutrition, functional components of food and childhood obesity. Prior to joining NIFA, she was a scientist at USDA’s Agriculture Research Service.

Chester earned her doctoral degree in dietetics and nutrition at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, where she was awarded the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship and was in the inaugural class of the Gates Millennial Scholars. Her time at FIU helped her narrow down what path she wanted to take in her career.

While teaching held some appeal as a profession, Chester ultimately responded to a different call. “I felt I could make an impact as a government scientist,” says the woman who has ridden her credentials to the top and now serves her country while also inspiring young people to follow their dreams, a leader for our times.

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