· Core Leader, Student Training
· PhD in Chemistry
· Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, SF State
Teaster is one of the authors of the SF BUILD grant, and you can see his influence and his compassion all over the program. He had a childhood filled with outdoor activities in Ashland, Mississippi and remembers playing outside a lot, climbing trees and jumping out of them: "I'd be gone for hours and no one would worry… I just had to watch out for water moccasins"… the poisonous snakes, not the shoes. In the forest, Teaster discovered an abandoned graveyard with tombstones from the 1800s. In his small town of 500, it was here that Teaster could "use my imagination with reckless abandon." He knew he definitely didn't want to be a farmer.
His family valued education, so not doing well in school was not an option. "When I was in sixth grade, I brought home my report card and I had all A's and a B in history. The next day, [my mother] came in and sat in on my history class because she wanted to see what I was doing – or not doing – that I didn't get an A. That was the last B I got until college." It was clear to Teaster that responsibility for his academic success was on him, and not on what the teacher was doing wrong.
In college, science was not Teaster's first choice because he thought it was too difficult and beyond his abilities in high school. Instead, he considered accounting, or music, or both. Socially quiet, Teaster was persistent and unafraid. College was a challenge only because he had to work "a LOT harder" than he did in high school. Although he did well in high school, he didn't know everything: "Being labeled the smart kid and having that be the major focal point of my identity, I felt like if I asked questions in class my whole identity would have been invalidated… When I didn't know what the hell is going on in class, I just suffered in silence… It made college much tougher than it should have been," he said. He was also in an unfamiliar social environment. "It was really tough just learning how to interact with people from different backgrounds and really trying to develop a voice, really understand who I was… Being there on a scholarship, but not really feeling smart." He didn't know things like calculus, and so felt less prepared than his classmates. "I really felt like I just got there by mistake and I was hoping no one caught on," he explained. These experiences left Teaster feeling like an outsider.
This outsider feeling in undergrad was not so much about his race – he went to an all-black college. It had to do with being different, having a very different cultural experience than his peers. His choice to be a biochemist was a natural outcome of his childhood personality and his curiosity to explore, discover, and question. "It's what I've always been. I like feeling that there is structure and order to the universe and it's fun figuring out what that order is. I just narrowed my focus to a particular area because it interests me the most," he said. Because it was so rare for an African-American male to be on the campus of his graduate school, Teaster, and everybody else, noticed when the new graduate student in physiology arrived. They immediately became friends. "It was the first time that I felt like I could be myself without fear of judgment. I was good in chemistry and he was good in biology so we decided that we each would help the other out in those areas. That made a HUGE difference. I could admit the things I didn't know and not worry that it might have a negative impact. It actually allowed me to LEARN. When I started to actually learn, I started to get ambitious.”
His current research is in protein structure-function relationships. He is interested in how a protein is built and what it does, as well as protein engineering. He works to redesign existing proteins to do things nature never intended. Science, he says, is a bit like basketball, one of his favorite sports. "If you understand the rules you may be able to manipulate the game." Although each basketball game has the same ingredients – ball, court, players – each game unfolds differently and has a unique outcome. Teaster wants to understand the different possibilities of unique outcomes of manipulating proteins. "I choose enzymes because I'm fascinated by their speed, accuracy, precision, and reliability – those are also traits I appreciate in my sports: the Splash Brothers – go Warriors!"
Teaster has a lot of fun in his research. He brings that energy to SF BUILD. He hopes to inspire students to "have the confidence to be who they are without apology and still succeed in scientific careers." When he's not engineering proteins and inspiring students in his lab, Teaster enjoys spending time with his family. He loves photography and music – he always has his camera with him. But, he says, "I don't carry a piano around for obvious reasons."
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