Veterans still giving back in new roles at Sanford Burnham Prebys

| Written by Monica May
photo of veterans now working for Sanford Burnham Prebys IT
From left to right: U.S. Army veterans Jeff Lustina and Hayder Al Kawaz; and U.S. Marines veteran Matt Sciaroni

More than 19 million Americans are veterans—the service members who have sacrificed for our nation’s safety and for the common good. Each year nearly a quarter of a million veterans transition to civilian life, where they often continue to give back in new roles. 

In honor of Veterans Day, we caught up with three veterans who now work in the information technology (IT) department at Sanford Burnham Prebys. They told us about their journey from the front lines to our research institute—and the many ways their service informs their work today. 

Matt Sciaroni, lead help desk specialist  

Matt Sciaroni, US Marine CorpsTell us more about your military service.
As a Marine I worked on signals intelligence. While deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, I supported intelligence and counter-intelligence activities, such as cryptography and satellite communication.

What skills from this experience inform your work today? 
The Marine Corps teaches you how to develop and execute plans. Here, we always have concurrent projects that are all time sensitive. Just like in the Marines, we all do our part to get the job done. I also learned small unit-leadership skills, which I use every day—I lead a small team of about six IT professionals.

Why Sanford Burnham Prebys? 
The important work that is being done here was a really big factor for me. I actually received a second job offer from a local company that paid more. I decided that it was more important to me to make a contribution to society, even if I made a little bit less. Here, our scientists are working to save lives. I definitely made the right choice.  

Any advice for veterans who are thinking about moving into IT? 
Definitely contact a hiring recruiter. Transitioning out of the military takes a lot of organization and focused effort—a recruiter makes your life so much easier. Also, keep learning. In IT, everything is always changing. Our team learns new things every day—we recently invested in an IT training tool that allows us to learn new skills at our pace.

What do you do in your free time? 
I spend time with friends, family, and my bulldog, Ben.

Jeff Lustina, help desk specialist I ​

Jeeff with locols in Kosovo
Lustina (right) often met with the local community
while in Kosovo.

Tell me more about your service. 
I joined the Army about 20 years ago. I was a “cable dawg”—I installed cable wires. After working for two years in active duty, I went on to reserves. Then 9/11 happened. I was deployed to Kosovo for nine months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to help with NATO peace-keeping missions. 

What types of activities did you do in this role? 
I made sure radio communications was working. At this point GPS was just starting, so I would help track all of our teams and make sure that everyone was safe. We often met with the local community as well to spread good will.  

Do skills gained from this experience inform your work today? 

Lustina also enjoys DJ'ing in his free time.
Lustina also enjoys DJ'ing in his free time.

Yes, so many. Leading by example. Always setting standards for excellence—and then exceeding those standards. Being detail oriented. Another big one: thinking three steps ahead. Earlier I was helping someone whose computer stopped working. I’m already thinking about my next steps if our next action doesn’t work. 

I joined the U.S. Army because I wanted to help people. That’s what I also like about this role. I still get to help people.

Why Sanford Burnham Prebys? 
I am incredibly proud to work at Sanford Burnham Prebys. I knew I wanted to work in IT, and helping such an important cause—which could lead to cures for cancer and more—is so important to me. When I read about our breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer, and even the stem cell therapy for hair loss, I think, “We were part of that.” We are behind the scenes, but we help the scientists focus on their research—not on fixing a faulty computer.

What do you do in your free time? 
Eat! I’m a foodie. 

Favorite restaurant? 
Sushi Ota. Best sushi in San Diego.

Hayder Al Kawaz, help desk specialist 

What is your service story? 
I was born and raised in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. I was there the day the U.S. Army arrived, in 2003. A crowd was gathering around the soldiers, and I was helping keep people back. The soldiers noticed that I spoke English well and offered me a job on the spot. I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in software engineering, so I agreed. I worked with the U.S. Army for 14 years, until the militias made it too dangerous to continue—they started to follow me home and threaten my family. I was often shot at. My family gained rapid clearance to move to San Diego, and I joined them in 2017. Now my family—my 6-year-old twins, mother and father—all live here. We love it. This is home now. 

Do certain skills from this experience inform your work today? 
Working with the U.S. Army, I had to be fast, accurate and think ahead—all while under great stress. One of my jobs was ensuring that TV stations such as the Associated Press were able to keep broadcasting, especially during the elections in 2014. I oversaw a team of ten people who were live-broadcasting three or four different channels. It was go, go, go. All of these skills translate well to my current role.  

Any advice for other veterans who are thinking about moving into IT? 
Make sure you keep up with new updates. Technology is constantly changing. I went to Cisco academy and also obtained four certificates in IT. Now I’m studying to get a network certification. In IT, you can’t ever sit back and think you know everything—there is always something you need to learn.  


Interested in working at Sanford Burnham Prebys? Visit our Careers page to learn more about open positions.

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