Student researcher George Testo works in the lab. Student researcher George Testo works in the lab.
Science & Discovery 

Student maintains passion for research

Biomedical science CEFNS Department of Biological Sciences first-generation hands-on honors college mentorship Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) STEM
Student researcher George Testo works in the lab.

Even an epidemic couldn’t keep first-generation student George Testo from his research with the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute.

George Testo’s passion for research started with a college-level research and biotechnology course at Tucson High School. When this first-generation student came to NAU, it wasn’t long before he started looking for opportunities to do more.

He chose NAU for a few reasons, enrolling as a Biomedical Science major in the Honors College. “I wanted to find a university that would allow me to get out of my comfort zone and also to explore new horizons. I had NAU on my mind because it’s known for making a difference in the biological and environmental sciences, something that is meaningful to me.”

His quest for research opportunities led him to the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI), where he’s been working ever since. “What’s cool about PMI is that there are multiple faculty research groups within the institute. And there’s a large cohort of undergraduate research assistants. Our goal is to support the goals of the faculty groups, so we can push the boundaries of scientific knowledge on a variety of research topics.”

Ironically, his work in pathogen and microbiome research was interrupted by—of all things—a global pandemic. Testo started at PMI in January 2020. Just two months later, the NAU campus went virtual in response to the COVID-19 crisis. He still got to do computer analyses from home but was thrilled to get back into the lab when campus reopened.

I have mentors and the knowledge that everyone here is supporting me. Through my accomplishments and my failures alike, they’re here for me. And that has been really powerful. It’s helped me make it through to my senior year.

In his sophomore year, Testo applied to the RISE (Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement) program, which helps historically underrepresented students in STEM fields prepare for PhD programs. RISE provided mentorship, lab training, and funding to support his research, along with an hourly wage. The support he received from RISE and the Honors College were game changers for Testo, who initially struggled with supporting himself, balancing his academics, and battling an unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome. “Coming to college as a first-generation student was hard,” he says. “Those two programs—the Honors College as well as RISE—are the reason that I’ve been able to make it through college.” Many first-generation students like Testo find advocates to help them navigate university life through NAU’s robust support systems.

“I have mentors and the knowledge that everyone here is supporting me. Through my accomplishments and my failures alike, they’re here for me. And that has been really powerful. It’s helped me make it through to my senior year.”

Testo is now working with his mentor Dr. Emily Cope, Assistant Professor of Biology and the Assistant Director of PMI, to study how shifts in the composition of microbes—bacteria, viruses, and fungi—on and in the body can influence chronic inflammation. Part of that research is involved with examining the microbiome of mice modeling Alzheimer’s disease, and now Testo is focusing on a condition known as chronic rhinosinusitis—inflammation of the nasal passageways.

“Working with Dr. Cope has opened my eyes,” Testo says. “When I am looking into certain diseases, I look at things more holistically. I look at the bigger picture rather than just one thing.”

After graduating in spring 2023, he hopes to enroll in a combined MD/PhD program to continue feeding his passion for clinical research and prepare for a career in translational medicine, which seeks to narrow the gap between researchers and practitioners, potentially bringing new therapies to patients more quickly. Testo is confident that NAU prepared him for a boundless future and will provide the same support to students from all backgrounds.

His advice to future Lumberjacks? “If your values align with helping others, protecting the environment, and doing things that matter for underrepresented populations, NAU is a great choice. It’s a great choice because of the programs that NAU has, the faculty, and the resources that students get, such as tutoring and one-on-one mentorship. Students are the center of the university.”