KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Behind the vaccines that protect people from the world’s deadliest diseases stand epidemiologists. They spend years studying and using their skills to identify outbreaks, but there is an innate quality in all of them—a passion to change the world.
“If I could find a vaccine that always worked or a new vaccine to help something or someone, it’d just be amazing,” says Liberty Kostrzewa, a Kalamazoo Central High School and Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center graduate.
She’s beginning her journey this fall at Western Michigan University as a public health major with dreams of one day becoming an epidemiologist.
Kostrzewa’s devotion to science started when she was a child, but she really homed in on biology her sophomore year of high school when she attended a health conference.
“There was an epidemiologist speaking, and he was talking about the flu and why it’s so hard to find a vaccine for the flu, because it’s always changing. It’s always mutating. And, from that day forth, I knew for a fact I wanted to study viruses,” she says. “I wanted to work in the hospitals, in the labs and to help people, and have this really very specific goal of curing the flu.”
With the pandemic upon us, Kostrzewa says she’s become even more determined to study vaccines. She also says hearing from so many female epidemiologists on the news every day inspires her.
“This epidemic has shown me it won’t be an easy job, but a job someone has to do. I’m excited,” she says.
By joining the public health program, Kostrzewa will focus on several core areas of study, making up WMU’s state-of-the-art, well-rounded approach to public health. Biology, psychology and sociology are intertwined with learning about diseases and environmental issues, as well as how to create and implement public health programs and advocate for health policies.
The program speaks for itself, she says, but there’s another quality that drew her to WMU.
“I have always enjoyed science and learning, but most of all, my core value and what I wanted to keep close to me was my family,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave the city, and with Western so close by with such great opportunities, I didn’t see a better place.”
Creating community is a goal Kostrzewa wants to achieve on a professional and personal level. Both, she feels, she can accomplish at WMU.
“I like the idea of Western because of the community, both in and out of the classroom. Not only the friends you can make, but the accessibility to teachers,” she says. “I’ve heard so many great stories of just the absolute friends you can make there and the relationships you can (develop) with your professors just by talking to them for a minute or two after every class.”
With lofty goals, Kostrzewa needs top-quality resources, but she still wants the convenience and personal touch from her university, making WMU the perfect fit.
“Western feels like both a big and small campus at the same time. You have those opportunities,” she says. “But, it being a walking campus and sectioned into specific categories of learning with both dorms and classrooms, it really can make it feel as big or as small as you want it to.”
Now committed to WMU, this fall Kostrzewa will begin her journey to protect the world from dangerous diseases. Sparked by a love of science and fueled by the recent pandemic, she says creating vaccines will be “a dream come true.”
To read about more student experiences, visit First-Year Faces online.