Father’s Loss to AIDS drives WSU’s Professor’s Passion for Public Health
Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences chair Matthew Nicholaou’s service to the community extends beyond courses he teaches. As a key member of WSU’s COVID-19 Task Force, he oversaw the laboratory interpreting and reporting results for COVID tests administered by hundreds of volunteers from WSU.
Before COVID-19 was a concern, however, Nicholaou focused much of his career in combating HIV/AIDS. At 12 years old, he lost his father to the infection.
“That was during the heart of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.,” he said. “It was a difficult time in our country, but, for me, there was a silver lining. It gave me my drive in life.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in medical technology, Nicholaou worked at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for four years in clinical microbiology before attending graduate school at University of Pittsburgh, where he earned his doctoral degree in public health. There, he studied the metabolic side effects of HIV therapy and how highly active antiretroviral therapy impacts lipid levels and cardiovascular disease risk.
While at the hospital, he validated a number of clinical tests, including the first Binax rapid test for strep throat. Unbeknownst to him, this would be the main test used by WSU during the COVID pandemic 15 years later.
At WSU, Nicholaou teaches clinical microbiology and molecular diagnostics, immunology, biostatistics, and laboratory research to diagnose disease. Given his background, he was essential to WSU’s COVID response.
“We did over 17,000 tests,” he said. “This massive testing effort was a huge morale boost to the WSU community and volunteers through the agency of our actions to combat the pandemic.”
Along with serving on the task force, Nicholaou taught a course on the immunology of COVID-19, primarily for non-science majors, alongside health sciences professor Jim Hutchins and microbiology professor Daniel Clark in spring 2021. The professors discussed the immune system, how the virus spreads, and why particular public health measures are in place.
In his medical laboratory sciences classes, Nicholaou creates opportunities for students to conduct their own research and present their findings at local and national conferences. He also trains students in using the latest medical laboratory technology, including the CRISPR gene editing tool, which can be used to target and kill harmful microbial infections.
Recognizing his dedication to students and the community, the Dr. Ezekiel R. Dumke College of Health Professions named Nicholaou the Dumke Endowed Chair for 2021. With the recognition, his department will receive $30,000 over three years. Nicholaou plans to use the funds to update lab instrumentation and reach more students in rural communities through distance education, including those in Utah, New Hampshire and Arkansas.
In fall 2022, the department will launch a post baccalaureate certificate that will allow students with an undergraduate degree and the correct prerequisite science credits to gain skills to work in a clinical microbiology laboratory within nine months to a year.
“Weber provides a doorway for a lot of people to make advancements in their lives and careers,” he said, “and our department is a perfect example of that.”
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