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Using Knowledge to Help Others

While real-life toxicology is indeed much different than it appears in movies and on TV, Professor of Biological Sciences Jonathan Van Berkom is using his experience as a consulting toxicologist to serve others and to benefit his students.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 02, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

Jonathan Van Berkom

Professor of Biological Sciences Jonathan Van Berkom’s work as a consulting toxicologist connects him to the latest academic research and provides experience and lessons for him to serve his students.

Professor of Biological Sciences Jonathan Van Berkom says toxicology isn’t like what you see on the big—or small—screen. It’s a more complex and often longer process than what crime and courtroom dramas lead people to believe, but it reveals much about the body and leads Christians to ask difficult questions. “That’s part of why He’s put us here, why He’s given us the knowledge that we have, is so we can help people in situations that need help,” Van Berkom says.

Van Berkom says his faith is intricately woven into the work he does as a toxicologist. As a trained pharmacist and veterinarian, Van Berkom says it’s important for Christians to consider how we use substances and drugs, whether they are medicinal or recreational. Van Berkom brings extensive experience to the discussion as he’s worked as a consulting forensic toxicologist since around 2006, serving on projects with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and consulting on several civil cases. His experience continues allowing him to bring real-life lessons and experience to his students. “The fantastic part is what it brings back,” Van Berkom says. “I have my hand on what’s going on out there in the therapeutic world, the malpractice cases, the insurance accidental cases, and I can bring that into the classroom.”

Van Berkom’s background in toxicology and science traces to his upbringing. His father worked as a lab director at BCA, and Van Berkom is still connected to several BCA workers. That led to a sabbatical project with the BCA about five years ago where he studied amphetamines. Van Berkom helped the BCA develop techniques to identify the types of amphetamines triggered in positive tests. That’s important because of the varied types of amphetamines—including those used medicinally and those used recreationally—affect the body in different ways. Some have little effect on the brain while others more severe effects.

The fantastic part is what it brings back. I have my hand on what’s going on out there in the therapeutic world, the malpractice cases, the insurance accidental cases, and I can bring that into the classroom.

— Jonathan Van Berkom, professor of biological sciences

Van Berkom continues to serve as an expert witness in about 10 to 12 cases a year, and unlike on TV, they last a long time—two to three years—and require in-depth scholarship and research. He’s acted as a witness in federal court and has traveled as far as Alaska for cases.

But his two roles overlap. Van Berkom’s research and consulting acts as his scholarly work required as a professor. His work largely focuses on human performance as affected by chemicals. He mostly consults with attorneys in civil cases such as malpractice, wrongful death, workers compensation, life insurance, impaired driving, and more. After receiving postmortem or antemortem lab work, Van Berkom interprets the tests to determine what chemicals—and at what levels—are present in the sample. He then writes a report on how such a chemical would have affected the individual at the time of an incident.

The necessary research for the cases keeps Van Berkom attune to the latest academic research. He uses the literature to support his findings in his written case reports, which he compares to a short scientific paper. Van Berkom has written academic pieces on his findings as well. He’s currently going through the data from a project on amphetamines, and he contributed a chapter to an upcoming nursing textbook.

Because of privacy laws, students can’t participate in the research or work with Van Berkom; however, his consulting work still offers real-world lessons and examples for his students, especially his Pharmacology course for nursing students—though he notes he can only speak in generalities about cases as he strictly follows privacy laws.

Jonathan Van Berkom

Professor of Biological Sciences Jonathan Van Berkom uses his experience as a consulting toxicologist to bring experience and lessons to his students.

Van Berkom also draws on his BCA contacts to speak to the Department of Chemistry’s Forensic Science course. He often tells his students about a case in which a nurse didn’t properly read a patient’s chart, which directed the nurse to discontinue use of a fentanyl patch, a powerful opioid. But a nurse used the patch, causing lasting damage to the patient. “I can bring that to my nursing students and say, ‘Hey, you really need to pay attention to these orders,’” says Van Berkom, who adds that such stories can reinforce the need for nursing students to be attentive to details.

In another case, a stranded driver became lost in the woods on a cold night. The driver tripped and fell face-first into cold water. The driver died—but not by drowning. In laymen’s terms, the driver died of cold shock. One reaction is essentially the diving reflex—you fall in cold water and your body slows your heart to conserve energy and preserve blood for the brain. The opposite effect is the pain response to the cold or cold shock—it’s an opposite nervous system effect that increases the heart rate in an attempt to warm the body.

The case, Van Berkom says, “shows two powerful reflexes that our body has that worked against each other: One reflex was saying speed the heart up; the other reflex was saying slow the heart down. In lay terms, the heart didn’t know what to do so it stopped.” Van Berkom and his students safely replicate a smaller example of these reactions separately in class.

Though his consulting work provides benefits to students, Van Berkom limits his workload—and the distance he travels for cases—to keep the focus at Bethel on his students. “My primary role is here, teaching,” he says.

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