Dexter Whitley is a smart guy. The 33-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi, has a Ph.D. and a Master’s degree in Microbiology from the University of Mississippi, Medical Center. His Bachelor of Science is from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, where he returned as a professor teaching molecular biology, immunology, physiology, and virology for three years.
It is not all that surprising. Whitley comes from smart. His mother is the Deputy State Attorney for the State of Mississippi. Before his retirement, Whitley’s father was headmaster of the historic Piney Woods Country Life School, founded in 1909 and the largest African- American prep school in the United States.
Whitley grew up on the cool side of nerdy. He got good grades; his best friend was a jock. He played backyard basketball with his chums. He even got into trouble. Once. A 30-second fight in art class resulted in a suspension. (His mother thought the punishment was unfair as the two boys received the same discipline even though for Whitley it was a first offense.) At home, he was grounded with no television, telephone, or Super Nintendo. For a week.
Whitley spent a year as a Post- Doctoral Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine engineering recombinant adenovirus vectors for cancer genes and vectors to restore salivary gland function in cancer patients after radiation therapy. He spent a summer as a visiting professor at Brown University teaching an introductory course in bio-medical molecular virology before returning to teach at Tougaloo.
Tougaloo College is also historic. It was founded in 1869 for the education of freed slaves and their children. More than 40% of Mississippi’s African- American practicing doctors and dentists are graduates of the school, as are over 30% of the state’s African– American lawyers and educators.
Whitley returned to Tougaloo on a mission. “I wanted to help students speak with confidence,” he said, “and for them to learn how to maneuver in society.” Jackson is the second Blackest city in America, Whitley said. “I had spent time away. I realized that Jackson is so isolated.” He knew the students could benefit from learning how to navigate in the world outside the city named for Andrew Jackson to honor his commitment to the Battle of New Orleans, the final salvo of the Battle of 1812.
“I was shy and introverted and I hated public speaking,” Whitley said. “In my first year of graduate school, I was unaware of the annual seminar series. You had to present a 60-minute talk, then a 15-minute Q & A on your research to date. A friend of mine was only 10 minutes in, and they were on him; they ate him alive. I seriously thought about dropping out.”
He decided his best chance was to prepare. “It is intimidating. You are in a room full of people with hundreds of years of research experience,” he said. “But what I realized is that I was the one person who knows my subject best.
“It would be a stretch to say it was good, but I became a confident public speaker,” Whitley said. “A lack of preparation will kill you, so always be prepared.”
Whitley knows how wrong a life can go. His best friend since middle school was convicted of grand theft and was incarcerated for over a decade. “It was strange,” he said. “I am getting my Ph.D. in some weird science at the same time he is in prison. It weighed on me, wondering what he was going through. He missed his entire 20s, getting out at 32. He is not going back, and he has a good job working in a plant. But still, we started at the same point.”
As rewarding as teaching was spiritually, Whitley always had a bug for law. “Teaching was the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” he said. “But the pay wasn’t ever going to be where it needed to be. Even the National Institutes of Health’s research funding is pretty bleak. They are only funding around 7%.”
The 6’1” former professor was interested in patent law, growing out of his biology research. Miami Law had the most to offer, and his wife of three years, Amethyst, who is a speech pathologist and works with stroke victims, could easily find work.
The second-year student spent the summer working for United States District Court Judges Andrea Simonton and Marcia Cooke. He is Professor Tamara Lave’s research assistant for the 2015-2016 year. He is a Harvey T. Reid Scholar, a scholarship given to students with exceptional academic records, and his interests include environmental law, health law, intellectual property, and sports and entertainment law.
The Mississippi native feels it is most important to be honest, to be a man of his word, to be dependable and always ready to help. “But my main aspiration,” he said, “is to be happy. I don’t want to feel I have left anything on the table. I want to work hard but be home with my wife and, one day, my children at the end of the day.”
In the meantime, they are in Miami, a place that is not at all like the other towns where he has lived. “So far I’ve lived in Jackson, St. Louis, and Providence, Rhode Island. Miami is so different. It’s hot, it’s humid, and the driving is so different. It’s our next great adventure.”