Nate Nieto, a prominent—and promising—microbiologist at NAU, died from pancreatic cancer in June, but his legacy lives on across the university community and beyond. His research in infectious disease and wildlife ecology will continue to resonate for years to come because of the meaningful scientific collaborations he fostered and the students he mentored.
Committed to improving public health
As noted on the Nieto Lab website, “Nate inspired his students to pursue the most excellent research, and all of it has important implications for public health and disease.”
After earning his PhD in comparative pathology from the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Nieto joined the University of Nevada Reno, where he taught and worked as a research associate. Nieto joined the faculty of NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences in 2012, where he eventually achieved tenure, was promoted to associate professor and led multiple projects involving the ecological maintenance and evolution of infectious diseases in wild animals. His work focused on understanding how this translated into transmission of disease to humans, domestic animals and wildlife using microbiology, molecular biology, phylogenetics and population ecology to investigate empirical infectious disease dynamics in wild animal populations. Many of his projects have influenced other scientists and ongoing initiatives at NAU as well as in the wider scientific community.
Nieto was committed to using scientific research to improve public health. A citizen-science study that generated mainstream publicity for Nieto and his collaborators, funded by the Bay Area Lyme Foundation, encouraged the public to send ticks to their lab for analysis. Although they expected around 2,400 samples, the team received more than 16,000. The results of the study, published in PLOS One, were featured on NPR and covered in an NBC Nightly News report on the spread of Lyme disease-carrying ticks throughout the US.
Another important effort to which Nieto contributed, in collaboration with associate professor of practice Rob Kellar and associate professor Andy Koppisch, was inventing a new technology that was recently issued a patent. The technology, which incorporates ionic liquids into skin wound-healing scaffolds, speeds healing while reducing the risk of infection.
Nieto also published 43 papers in peer-reviewed journals, many in collaboration with other NAU scientists. Nieto was presented with the Distinguished Faculty Award in 2018.
As the Bay Area Lyme Foundation’s website noted, “Nate was a force of nature and so fun to be around—always talking about surfing, mountain bike riding and snowboarding, always offering an open door at his Flagstaff, AZ home. Nate had an amazing power of making meaningful connections with everyone he met. Our deepest condolences to his wife Emily, his family and all of our friends at the Nieto Lab at Northern Arizona University. We all ‘loved him to bits.’”
Nieto’s mentorship leads to student’s pursuit of PhD in biology
Paul Phillips, who studied with Nieto and Koppisch as he pursued his PhD in biology, said, “Nate was one of the best bosses, mentors and friends I will ever be so lucky to have. I was taking his Medical Microbiology capstone course at the end of my junior year. I would arrive at his 8:00 class with an energy drink, pen and paper to start my day. Nate would stroll in with flip flops and a hoodie, get his PowerPoint loaded and proceed to yell about aerosolized diarrhea (describing the spread of SARS in the 2003 outbreak in Hong Kong). I think it’s fair to say we got along from the start.
“The next year, I was an undergraduate researcher looking into novel combinatorial treatments to one of Nate’s favorite bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease. This opened my eyes to the world of research and ultimately led to my pursuit and achievement of my MS degree in chemistry from Boise State University.
“After completing my master’s and job hunting for a few months, Nate convinced me to return to NAU, so I applied for admission to NAU’s Biology PhD program.
“A few months later, after I was accepted, I was searching for housing in Flagstaff. It took two weeklong visits to secure an apartment, during both of which Nate and his wife Emily let me stay at their house. On weekends, we would garden, weed whack and rake three to four years’ worth of pine needles during the day, eat fresh picked chard and slow cooked brisket for dinner and soak in the wood burning hot tub before turning in. During the week, I would dog-sit and apartment-hunt, while they attended conferences or Nate would perform fieldwork in the Mojave Desert (in July!).
“I credit Nate with making me a better scientist through his mentorship, a better mountain biker through shredding Schultz Creek as often as possible, and a more balanced person by teaching through example how to not stress about things out of my control by letting go. Finally, I credit him with my ultimate bliss. If not for Nate, I would not have returned to NAU nor be pursuing my PhD. Without returning to NAU, I would never have met nor married the love of my life.
“It is not an exaggeration nor overestimate when I say that my employment, mentorship and friendship with Nate has led to my most cherished skills, dreams, memories and relationships. Shred on, Nate!”
Scientist leaves a legacy in the art of living
“Nate’s life was too short, but he packed so much into 43 years,” his biography noted. “He kayaked in the Trinity River, mountain-biked, backpacked and mountaineered in the Sierras, scuba-dived in the cold Pacific Northwest and body-boarded in Southern California and Big Sur. He protested for social justice at the School of the Americas and aided migrants at the southern border. He nurtured his students and cultivated his garden. He helped to further scientific knowledge. He loved his wife, family and friends.”
Friend, colleague, mentor
Nieto left behind many friends, colleagues and students who remember him fondly.
“Nate was my good friend and colleague,” associate professor Liza Holeski said. “I miss him every day. Nate’s legacy is the enthusiasm that he had for all aspects of his life, including family and friends, science and outdoor adventure. Nate and I had many discussions about science and life, and he reinforced for me things that I already knew, but sometimes forget: the importance of being surrounded by family and friends, the importance of loving what you do every day and a love for unraveling the scientific puzzles of the natural world.”
“I’m privileged to have known Nate as a friend and colleague,” assistant professor Emily Cope said. “I first met him when he was interviewing for his faculty position at NAU and I was a graduate student. Years later, I met Nate again during my own faculty interview at NAU and my first thought was that I needed to find a way to collaborate with this guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if any scientist thought the same thing after meeting Nate for the first time. I was lucky. Soon after I arrived at NAU, Nate, Andy and Rob invited me to work with them on a couple of ongoing projects—amazingly fun and productive collaborations.
“I learned a lot from Nate. As a scientist, he really was brilliant. I find it difficult to classify him as any one kind of expert, because he could synthesize ideas from so many different fields! He was a great person to go to for advice, but it was equally as educational to sit in a room with him brainstorming ideas for new grants, or to watch him mentor his students. I’m sad that I only had a couple of years to work with Nate. His legacy at NAU spans the gamut from mentorship to teaching to his extremely impactful research.”
Professor Tad Theimer tells his favorite story about Nieto, who was his friend and colleague.
“A short time after Nate joined our department, I mentioned to him that I had been having a hard time getting a blood sample from the skunks I was studying. Being Nate, he immediately offered to come out in the field and see if he could help. So about a week later, he came out to check traps with me, and the first trap we came to had a raccoon in it. Now a skunk in a trap will just curl up and go to sleep, and look up kind of bleary-eyed when you approach. A raccoon, on the other hand, looks out at you with those big brown eyes, looking all cute with its little bandit mask, and when you get close suddenly goes all Cujo, teeth bared, eyes flashing, lunging at you through the bars.
“Nate took one look at it and said, ‘You’d better go back to the car and get some courage.’
“‘Courage?’ I asked.
“‘That’s what I call gloves,’ he replied. ‘Put them on and suddenly you’re filled with courage to wrestle an animal like that.’
“Then Nate told me this story: His field crew had become so used to referring to gloves as ‘courage’ that he didn’t even think about it when he invited his new lab technician to get some field experience by checking traps the next day, and ended with the statement, ‘don’t forget to go by the hardware store and get some courage before you come out.’
“The poor tech was too nervous to admit she had no idea what he was talking about, so the next day she went into the hardware store, walked up the first employee she saw and asked, ‘Do you know where I can find some courage?’
“I don’t know if that story was true, but I began telling it to every field tech I’ve worked with since, giving Nate proper credit of course, and we all started calling gloves courage. And now, I cannot put on a pair of gloves without thinking of Nate. And I cannot think of Nate without thinking about that word – courage.”
“When last I saw him at a meeting,” Professor Emeritus W. Linn Montgomery said, “he was so thin I initially wondered who he was. He was wearing a ball cap. He looked at me and said he was working hard to emulate me. I knew some cheap shot was coming, so asked what the heck he was talking about—at which point he raised his cap to display his bald head (I’m well on my way to that condition…). Classic Nate, and such a loss for us personally and professionally.”
Nieto’s influence lives on through his students
“Nate was my colleague, he was my friend, he was my kindred spirit – and he taught me to use the word ‘dude,’” associate professor Tinna Traustadóttir said.
“We first met when we were both asked to serve on a student’s committee. We immediately hit it off and became friends despite very divergent research fields—wildlife ecology and infectious diseases vs. human redox biology of aging. We even collaborated and published papers together! I think it is quite rare to forge such a strong friendship with someone you meet through work but I feel so lucky to have had that with Nate. We always drove together to the faculty retreat in the fall and we could talk about anything – our families; soccer; work; hantavirus at the location we were having the retreat; how he was feeling inside when his wife Emily was swimming from Catalina Island and he was kayaking.
“If I had to describe Nate to someone who didn’t know him, the first thing that comes to mind is GENUINE. The guy did not have an ounce of pretense; and he treated everyone the same. Another word that I would use is JOY. Pure joy. Nate would walk into a room and he would just make everyone a little happier.
“There is no way to make any sense of why Nate got this cancer, but I am proud and inspired of how hard he fought. As I go through the grieving process, there is a quote by Henry Adams that gives me comfort: ‘A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ Because every single one of Nate’s students, both graduate and undergraduate, have some of Nate’s spirit inside them. And they will pass it on to their students. And they in turn will pass it on, and so on. Nate’s influence will never stop.
“He will be in my heart forever,” Traustadóttir said.
Nieto integrated his research with that of others through collaboration
“Nate and I hit it off from day one,” Koppisch said, “and he became one of my closest friends in short order. I have no doubt a lot of people had a similar experience the first time they met Nate. His good-natured and thoughtful demeanor made him an important part of many people’s lives.
“I’ve known a lot of incredibly talented individuals in my career, and Nate was as skilled as anyone I’ve met. Brilliant, innovative, dedicated, passionate—all of these are appropriate descriptors of Nate. He was one of the sharpest people I ever encountered, and his knowledge on a wealth of scientific topics was incredible. At the same time, he always seemed to have an eye for how his work could integrate with that of others to go into new and exciting directions. Collaborating with Nate was one of the most rewarding things I have done in my professional career, both because I believed the work our team was pursuing truly had the potential to help people one day, but also because I really enjoyed the opportunity to work closely with someone I liked and respected.
“That said, what I think about most when I remember Nate is simply that he was as dedicated to being a good person as he was to being a good scientist. He was compassionate, empathetic, generous and kind, and he genuinely wanted happiness for the people in his life. Nate not only looked for and found the best in others; he often helped people bring out the best within themselves. I always admired Nate for who he was as a person more than anything else, and I feel I am a better teacher, researcher, mentor and friend to others because of him. I am truly thankful for the time I had with Nate,” Koppisch said.
Fundraiser held to benefit research, graduate students
The Nieto Lab organized a fundraiser to support the work of Nieto’s graduate students.
“We are the Nieto Lab and we are proud to be doing science in the name of Dr. Nathan Nieto. After an 18-month battle, Nate’s body finally succumbed to stage 4 pancreatic cancer, but his spirit and teachings will continue to endure with vigor. Nate wholeheartedly approved of this logo illustrated by research assistant Jackie Parker. We know that he was loved by so many wonderful people and we wanted to offer them the opportunity to show their support and love by wearing some Nieto Lab gear,” read the website. “So the next time you’re out there getting pitted like Nate would, either on a gnarly Sierra peak or a monster grant proposal, sport some gear and keep going big.”
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and November 21 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day, designed to raise awareness about the disease and the urgent need for earlier detection.
Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research
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