For Jonathan Fogo, Montreat College has always been associated with family. Although his hometown is Chattanooga, Tennessee, he has many fun memories of growing up in Montreat.
His grandfather, the Rev. Dr. John Newton, taught in the Bible and Religion department at Montreat for more than three and a half decades spanning from 1964 until his retirement in 1994. After his retirement, Dr. Newton continued to serve as an adjunct professor for both the traditional program and the School of Adult and Graduate Studies until 2000. Each summer, Jonathan and his siblings would spend time in Montreat with their grandparents and affectionately call it “Oma and Opa Camp.”
“We would go to Montreat to visit my grandparents for holidays, and every summer when our parents were fed up with me and my siblings, they’d send us out there for a week and then come to get us.”
Despite his close personal connection, attending Montreat College wasn’t a guarantee, especially when Fogo considered taking advantage of the Tennessee Promise, a program that aims to keep talent in-state by offering Tennessee high school graduates tuition-free years at community and technical colleges in the Volunteer State. However, when his grandfather became ill during his senior year of high school, Jonathan’s focus quickly returned to Montreat.
“He had pancreatic cancer, and my high school had a winter break, very similar to a college break, where it’s about a month-long, so I spent a few weeks up in Montreat helping my grandparents,” Fogo said. “I still had a really strong desire to go to a Christian college, and I think the Lord used that time to turn my attention to Montreat College, and then God provided financial means with it to make it a pretty good option.”
At Montreat College, Fogo was selected to be a part of the Honors Program, where he majored in biology with a concentration in applied biochemical technologies. While reflecting on his studies, he was grateful for the personalization Montreat’s small class-sizes offered him.
“The size of the college is really great, and it allows you to create opportunities that are more tailored to your interests,” he said. “A lot of the projects I did in my classes were tailored to questions that I wanted to ask and answer.”
One example of that flexibility occurred when he and three of his classmates wanted to explore the coronavirus disease instead of continuing an enzyme study a previous group of students had researched.
“We could’ve picked up where they left off, but we wanted to do something with COVID,” Fogo admitted. “We were able to generate our own specific binding proteins to the spike protein of COVID, which is what our immune system recognizes. With these proteins we were able to make our own crude tests that could detect and quantify the amount of spike protein in a sample. The personal attention that you get at Montreat both in regard to your training and your education, but also in regard to your personal and spiritual growth is excellent, and it’s something that I wouldn’t have been able to get at a larger school.”
At the heart of that personal and intellectual growth was the immense support from professors at Montreat College. Individuals like Dr. Mark Lassiter, his advisor, and Dr. Alex Sosler left a lasting impact on his academic pursuits.
“I took a lot of classes with Dr. Lassiter and really enjoyed his classes,” Fogo said. “He also advised me with some independent research. It’s great to come to someone with frustrating problems and say, ‘I don’t know why this is or isn’t working’ and then think through it together. Also, Dr. Sosler was a person who I met too late in college. I only had one class from him, and when it was over, I knew I should have taken more from him.”
Throughout his time at Montreat, he also listed Rev. Rachel Toone as a close friend who encouraged his spiritual growth, as well as Joey Stewart, director of resident life, as a significant mentor.
“When I was an RA, Joey was my supervisor,” Fogo said. “I had weekly meetings with him for three years where we would just talk about life and what’s going on, so we were able to develop a really strong mentor-mentee relationship.”
After graduating from Montreat College in 2022, Fogo moved to Memphis, where he is currently working toward a Ph.D. in biomedical science at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. In addition, he is a graduate research assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Fogo said the average student completes the Ph.D. program in approximately five and a half years.
“The length of the program depends on what research you get into,” he said. “My goal is to be average, and if I can be a little speedier, that would be fine too!”
Fogo’s degree concentration is in microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry. In his current lab work, his research is particularly focused on investigating the nasal microbiome and influenza transmission.
“I’m really interested in the nasal microbiome because that is a part of our bodies that is interacting most with our environment,” he said. “We breathe in, and whatever we breathe then is interacting with us and our nasal microbiome.”
Fogo described how a mini ecology happens in various parts of our bodies, where the type of bacteria that live in our nose and the proportions of the bacteria that live there are quite different from those in our gut microbiome. As we interact with air and food, our microbiomes train our immune systems to respond in certain ways.
“Just if you were to look at the ecology of a forest or Montreat College and compare it to the ecology of a desert in Utah, they’re very distinct,” he said. “The same kind of dynamic can be said about the upper respiratory tract.”
The second aspect of his research explores infectious diseases by discovering how the influenza virus interacts with the nasal microbiome. He is also hoping to explore the reconstruction of the microbiome after a flu infection.
“When a person gets sick, there’s a change in the microbiome,” he said. “Because of this change, a number of things can happen, and one of those things is that you can get a secondary bacterial infection. That’s mainly because the way we fight the flu injures our microbiome, so now there’s space for other bacteria to enter, grow, and fill that space.”
His studies could also potentially shed light on why some individuals are more likely to transmit the flu and others are not. His lab is part of a network that uses cohorts of households to study how the virus is transmitted among its members. Once someone is ill, the rest of the family begins taking nasal swabs to track who in the house gets the flu and who doesn’t. Fogo hopes to use this data to learn more about the nasal microbiome’s role in flu transmission.
“With that information, we can ask, ‘OK, this person had the flu. Why didn’t his sister get the flu, but their dad did?’ We can look at what bacteria are living in their microbiome and see if there’s any connection to species in abundance and transmission of the flu,” he explained.
While the intersection of science and faith can sometimes be a contentious battleground, Fogo believes they can have a harmonious coexistence, working hand in hand to provide profound insights into the “how” and “why” questions of life. For Fogo, science may answer “how” questions like “how do we get sick” or “how do we get better,” but his faith provides the answers to the deeper “why” questions that give life meaning and relevance.
“I think I approach science with the fundamental understanding that God created all these things and beauty is in the details of how God created everything,” he reflected. “When I’m studying biology, I think of it as like I’m a linguist looking at language. Scripture tells us that everything we know was spoken into existence, so for me, studying science, studying the details of how a cell works, it’s as if I’m looking at God’s language and his spoken word. We have our alphabet, but when God speaks, it’s real, and it looks like the creation that we enjoy, including the human body in all its intricacies.”
As Fogo progresses through his graduate studies, his long-term goal is to become a professor, where he can share his passion for science. His ambitions include starting at a larger institution to continue doing research and gain teaching experience before bringing his knowledge and expertise to a small Christian college, perhaps even coming full circle back to Montreat College to continue his family’s legacy.
“It’s hard to put into words, but the familial connection at Montreat College means the most to me,” he said. “I grew a lot there, and I want to see Montreat continue to grow in the way that it’s been growing, and I really want the science and honors programs to keep growing. Montreat College has been a part of my family now for three generations. It’s a special place, and it’s a connection I don’t want to lose.”