By Cheryl Reed, Graduate School
PULLMAN, Wash. – On Feb. 11, President Barack Obama in a news conference publicly recognized a group of heroes, including U.S. Navy Cdr. Guillermo “Billy” Pimentel, a 1999 Washington State University graduate.
“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,” said Obama. “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.”
Pimental felt surreal standing right behind the president as the speech continued.
“Billy Pimentel led a team of naval microbiologists to set up mobile laboratories that can diagnose Ebola within four hours,” said the President. “And he said, ‘It has been an honor for us to use our skills to make a difference.’ These values – American values – matter to the world.”
‘I owe my success to WSU’
Pimentel’s journey to the White House began in Puerto Rico where, at 17 years old, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve as a hospital corpsman and served during the first Persian Gulf War. After completing his enlisted career, he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial microbiology and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Puerto Rico.
When he began searching for a doctoral program, he chose Washington State University.
“I decided to go with the best,” he said. “Drs. Lori Carris and Jack Rogers invited me to apply. I never thought I would have that opportunity, but they believed in me. Ultimately, I feel like I owe my success to WSU.”
He completed his Ph.D. in plant pathology with a concentration in mycology and population genetics under the supervision of Carris in 1999. He was commissioned as a naval lieutenant in July.
Lab results in four hours, down from seven days
His first duty station was the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., where he was head of the microbiology department. He was transferred to the Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo, Egypt 2003-10, where he served in multiple leadership positions and managed more than 25 scientific research projects.
When the Ebola epidemic began in 2013, there were limited laboratories in West Africa capable of detecting the virus. In August 2014, the World Health Organization put in an official request to the U.S. Embassy in Liberia for laboratory assistance.
At that time, Pimentel was in charge of the only four U.S. Navy rapid deployable mobile laboratories responsible for the detection of infectious diseases. In September, the U.S. Department of Defense flew him into Liberia to look at a location where two of his mobile laboratories might be placed. Within 14 days they 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,” he said. “With my labs, the results took only four hours. Within just three weeks, confirmed cases of Ebola had dropped significantly there.”
“We are a force multiplier,” said Obama during the press conference. “Today marks a transition in our fight against this disease. Ebola treatment units have been built, over 1,500 African health workers have been trained, and volunteers around the world gained the confidence to join the fight.”
Learning to make a difference in the world
As the only mycologist in the Navy, Pimentel is adamant about the role his time and education at WSU played in his success.
“Washington State University taught me to think outside the box,” he said. “Earning a Ph.D. is not about becoming an expert; it’s more about learning how to think and solve big problems.”
His next assignment will be executive officer, second in command, at the Naval Medical Research Unit #6 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.
What would he like to tell graduate students? “They can use their knowledge to make a difference in the world. With a graduate degree, the sky is the limit,” he said.
“What makes us exceptional,” said Obama, “is when there’s a big challenge and we hear somebody saying it’s too hard to tackle, and we come together as a nation and prove them wrong. Thank you all for proving again what America can accomplish.”
View the president’s press conference about the Ebola response on C-Span: http://www.c-span.org/video/?324305-1/president-obama-remarks-combating-ebola.
Find a longer version of this article at http://gradschool.wsu.edu/guillermo-pimentel/.
Additional Washington State University alumni serving as microbiologists in the U.S. Navy:
Capt. Marshall Monteville, executive officer at NAMRU-Southeast Asia (Singapore)
Cdr. Matthew Doan, duty under instruction at Penn State University
Lcdr. Brent House, lab director at the Naval Medical Center San Diego
Lt. Kimberly Edgel, Naval Medical Research Center, Silver Spring, Md. (working on malaria)
Lt. Rebecca Pavlicek, NAMRU-Southeast Asia (Singapore)
Lt. Robert V. Gerbasi, NAMRU-6 in Lima, Peru (working in malaria and also deployed to Liberia)