When the Ebola epidemic began in 2013, there were limited laboratories in West Africa capable of detecting Ebola. So in August 2014, the World Health Organization put in an official request to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia for laboratory assistance. A month later the Department of Defense flew in Commander Guillermo “Billy” Pimentel ’99 PhD, a leader in biodefense research for the Navy, to look for a location where two of his four mobile laboratories might be placed. Within 14 days the labs were set up and fully operational.
“Before we arrived in Liberia, it was taking at least seven days to get Ebola lab results back to the physicians at the Ebola treatment units,” says Pimentel. “With my labs, the results took only four hours.”
Within three weeks, confirmed cases of Ebola dropped significantly. A new program is now helping train lab technicians in Liberia to conduct their own testing for infectious diseases.
Pimentel’s work with the Navy ultimately earned him the public recognition of President Barack Obama. Coming from a life of poverty to the pursuit of an education and eventually to a leadership role in the Navy, Pimentel says he ultimately owes his success to Washington State University.
Pimentel grew up poor in Puerto Rico with little concept of life beyond poverty. At 17 years old, he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve as a hospital corpsman and served during the first Gulf War. With GI Bill funds in hand, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial microbiology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico. Still wanting more, he began searching for a doctoral program in plant pathology.
“Doctors Lori Carris and Jack Rogers of WSU invited me to apply to their program, and even though my GRE scores were low because English is my second language, they believed in me. I never thought I would have that opportunity,” says Pimentel.
According to Carris, Pimentel was an outstanding student at WSU, but adjusting to life in a cold climate was tough at first.
“My wife and two young children had never been out of Puerto Rico and that first winter was pretty cold,” says Pimentel. “But the people were so friendly and nice. My oldest son at the time was 3 years old and within just three months was speaking English. Our four years at WSU were the best for our family.”
After he earned his doctoral degree in plant pathology, with an emphasis in mycology and population genetics, Pimentel became a lieutenant and head of the microbiology department at the U.S. Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. In 2003 Pimentel was deployed to the Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo, Egypt, for nearly seven years, where he managed more than 25 research projects to implement and strengthen laboratory-based disease surveillance capacity. He is currently the only mycologist in the Navy.
As part of his duties, Pimentel traveled extensively to develop joint collaborative research projects on health protection, and conducted laboratory assessments of hospitals and public health laboratories. He trained hundreds of clinicians, researchers, and technicians in biosafety and provided laboratory support during the H5N1 outbreak in Africa and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, backing up health ministries in 20 countries.
In 2011, Pimentel was selected as deputy director of the Biological Defense Research Directorate, where he was responsible for the only four rapid deployable mobile laboratories used for the detection of biowarfare agents and infectious diseases. Weighing only about 1,100 pounds and fitting in five cases, these mobile labs—including power generators, freezers, and supplies—can load quickly into a commercial cargo plane and deploy anywhere in the world, as they did for the Ebola response.
In February of this year, President Obama recognized Pimentel for his role in fighting the Ebola epidemic. The first thing Pimentel did when he found out was call his mom in Puerto Rico.
“She could not believe it,” he says. “I never thought I would be shaking the president’s hand. I come from a poor family in Puerto Rico and was a first-generation college student. This was too surreal.”
During the press conference at the White House on February 11, Obama said, “Last summer, as Ebola spread in West Africa, I said that fighting this disease had to be more than a national security priority, but an example of American leadership. We are here today to thank the troops and public health workers who headed into the heart of the Ebola epidemic. They represent what is best about America.”
Pimentel is proud of the WSU education that helped him merit the president’s recognition. “Earning a PhD is not about becoming an expert. It’s more about learning how to think and solve big problems. My mentors at WSU were dedicated and believed in me. Dr. Carris said that with strong dedication, you can do miracles, and when I’m working, I sometimes think, ‘What would Dr. Carris do?’” he says.
Pimentel’s next assignment will be as second-in-command at the Naval Medical Research Unit in Lima, Peru, where he will serve for two years. When he retires from the Navy, he thinks that teaching at a community college would suit him.
WSU alumni serving as microbiologists in the U.S. Navy
Capt. Marshall Monteville ’03 PhD, executive officer at NAMRU-Southeast Asia (Singapore)
Cmdr. Matthew Doan ’97 MS, Duty Under Instruction at Penn State University
Lt. Cmdr. Brent House ’03 PhD, lab director at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego
Lt. Kimberly Edgel ’97, Naval Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, Maryland (working in malaria)
Lt. Robert V. Gerbasi ’00, NAMRU-6 in Lima, Peru (working in malaria and deployed to Liberia)
Lt. Rebecca Pavlicek ’03, NAMRU-Southeast Asia (Singapore)