BY KAYLA VALERA | STAFF WRITER
Professor John Berestecky has been with KCC’s Microbiology lab and Medical Laboratory Technical (MLT) Program since its very beginning, having helped established the former in 1989 and the latter in 1976. Though in between the formation of both of these programs, Berestecky dedicated two and a half years to work in the Peace Corps from 1979 to 1982, and is still inspired to remain involved with the West African country of Liberia.
Berestecky always had an interest in microbes and what made people sick, even before he knew that there was such a study that existed. During his sophomore year at Pennsylvania State University, Berestecky recalls having looked through a catalog of majors and finding one to declare for his undergraduate’s degree. Stumbling upon the study of Microbiology, he somehow knew that this was something that he wanted to do.
He explains that microbes are all around us and effect just about every aspect of our lives.
“You may not be aware of [microbes],” he said. “Certainly they’re there if you get sick with an infectious disease, but you’ve got food, cheese, wine, and bread. They’re all made with microbes essentially. There’s a big impact of microbes in health. We often think of them making us sick, but in fact the opposite is true. We got more microbes that conspire to keep you healthy than the ones that make you sick. … There’s just a lot going on and I could talk about it for hours, which I do for my lectures (laughs).”
After graduating from Penn State and gaining some exposure with medical microbiology working at a Virginia Medical Laboratory, Berestecky decided to attend graduate school in Microbiology at UH Mānoa in 1974 due to the warm climate in Hawaiʻi. While working on his master’s degree, he was hired by KCC to help start the MLT Program, which is still offered at KCC for those pursuing an ASNS in MLT.
Having received his master’s degree in Microbiology in 1976 and while going to school to get his Ph.D, Berestecky decided to take break from graduate school and joined the Peace Corps in 1979. He was stationed in the West African country of Liberia and utilized his knowledge of microbes to assist in tuberculosis outbreak control, establishing protocols for further patient intake. In the time that he was in Liberia, Berestecky also witnessed the 1980 Liberian coup d’état in which there was a military takeover.
Despite the issues that were going on within the country, Berestecky remained in Liberia even after his capacity with the Peace Corps expired. In 1982 he was hired as a bacteriologist under the New York Blood Center research lab in Liberia to study vaccination developments for Hepatitis – a large project that involved chimpanzees and analyzed what made them sick and finding a cure.
Returning to Hawaiʻi in 1982 to finish his graduate school, Berestecky obtained his Ph.D from UH Mānoa in 1987 and proceeded to earn his post doctorate at a cancer research center. By the time Berestecky came back to work at KCC in 1989, he was hired to establish the Microbiology lab to be paired with the pre-existing lecture course. Since then, Berestecky has also helped to put together courses such as Biotechnology, which was once designed for an associate’s degree but is now only given as a certificate that is included for those pursuing an ASNS in Life Science.
While working as a professor at KCC, Berestecky came into contact with the University of Liberia in 2013 and learned of its need for an updated Biology program. In this peaceful era for the country of Liberia, which is recovering from a civil war that ended in the ’90s, schools there are trying to focus their efforts on virus training programs given the emerging outbreaks that come from the rainforest. After hearing about this opportunity to help the school, Berestecky has since become an active leader in the development of its Biology department and makes annual trips to the school to directly teach the students.
“It’s such a different world. It’s a developing country and has problems that are much different,” said Berestecky about trying to relate his experiences in Liberia to his students at KCC. “The thing I do the most is share examples [to his class] of what infectious diseases look like in places where medical care isn’t that good, and where there are a lot of tropical diseases. For instance, I was there during the ebola epidemic and it was quite dramatic. And I got to see that and I got to experience that and in a small way, got to help lots of people out.”
In his work with the University of Liberia, Berestecky helps to implement a training program for Liberians that will allow them to develop an early warning system for viruses. While ebola – one of the biggest threats and epidemics from West Africa – is gone for now, Berestecky said he wants to create a laboratory capacity that will let students from Africa be equipped for future outbreaks that might happen.
One scenario in which Berestecky had brought KCC and the University of Liberia together is when he sponsored a student from Liberia, Rufus Saymie, to stay with him for KCC’s Spring 2016 school semester. At the time, Chancellor Leon Richards even paid Saymie’s tuition for him to take classes in the Biotechnology lab. Having already earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of Liberia, Berestecky figured that Saymie should at least experience a well developed laboratory offered at KCC so that he could take can this new knowledge with him back to his country. Once Saymie completed his lab course at KCC, he was given a freestanding certificate of Biotechnology since he had already taken qualified courses back at the University of Liberia.
Given his collective experience in Liberia with real world applications of microbiology, Berestecky deeply understands the importance of not just microbes but overall education in the lives of his students. Going beyond his capacity as a professor at KCC, Berestecky continues to help those in West Africa by furthering and refining their Biology programs.