Can a computer predict a bug’s immune system response to a new pathogen? A native of Mitchell wants to know.

November 20 – Can a computer really predict how an insect’s immune system might fight off an unknown pathogen? This is the question Vincent Peta will spend the next two years trying to answer.

Peta, a 2010 Mitchell High School graduate, was recently named a Computing Innovation Fellow, South Dakota’s first to receive the prestigious scholarship.

The CI Fellow program was founded in 2009, with encouragement from the Computer Science and Engineering Directorate of the National Science Foundation, with the aim of providing an expected stream of doctoral students in the field of computer science.

Since the pandemic, the scholarship has adjusted its scope to help recent and future computer science doctoral students whose job search has been hampered by the continued disruption COVID-19 has had on college hiring practices and the economy.

For the 2021 scholarship, Peta was one of 69 applicants selected out of a field of 239. Research projects will be conducted at nearly 50 different universities, seeking to answer a wide variety of questions.

Congratulations to @ vincentpeta1 for obtaining a very competitive place as a Computing Innovation Fellow! Q&A and Research Details ➡️ #CIFellow

– South Dakota EPSCoR (@SDEPSCoR) November 5, 2021

“I thought (the acceptance) was a joke at first. I still don’t believe it’s real,” Peta said. “I think this is a great opportunity because now I can get into a more computational aspect of biology.”

Peta’s fascination with microbiology began in high school, when her biology teacher, Julie Olson, first introduced her to the subject. After completing general education requirements at South Dakota State University, he worked on a research project studying the interaction between plants and microbes.

“I was like, ‘It was really cool, but I don’t know if I want to do plants for the rest of my life,” said Peta. “It was my boss at the time who said to me, ‘If you really like this, why don’t you stay in college?'”

After earning his masters and doctorate degrees – the latter obtained at the height of the pandemic – Peta said he was struggling to find the right job. He applied for a postdoctoral fellowship position at the University of South Dakota and ultimately for the CI scholarship.

Over the next two years, he will be working on his latest research project: “Prediction of protein structure and function to identify new mechanisms of resistance to vector-borne pathogens in insects”.

The research – under the mentorship of USDA Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Etienne Gnimpieba and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences Jose Pietri – will examine proteins in an insect’s immune system and use computer science to try to predict how a new pathogen could affect the health of the insect and the pathogen. transmissibility to a human host.

“It’s not always perfect, but it gives us a starting point, otherwise we’re just fishing in the dark,” said Peta.

Since most studies of unknown proteins in an immune system take a year to complete a process called crystallization, using computer programs to predict the characteristics of proteins can dramatically speed up the process.

“That’s why a lot of these predictions come into play in biology, because we can now look at a protein in a day or a week and base our experiments on that rather than taking a year to physically study a protein,” he said. explained Peta.

His inspiration for the project came from research he conducted under a grant from the Department of Defense, investigating the feasibility of using bacteria to kill bedbugs instead of insecticides – some of which are bedbugs. bed have developed resistance.

“It’s kind of like an offshoot of the bedbug work, which investigated whether bedbugs can spread germs or disease like a tick or a mosquito would,” Peta said. “When you look back through a lot of research people say bed bugs can’t. Now we know that bed bugs can harbor pathogens that can make us sick. “

By understanding how pathogens interact with insects, Peta believes scientists would be able to better understand how future insect-borne diseases might impact insects and their potential transmission to humans.

“Our main goal is to predict how, when a bacteria gets into a tick, for example, why doesn’t it make a tick sick, but when it gets into a human, it makes us sick,” Peta said. . “It’s programmed to make people sick, but what activates it to make a human sick?” “

Peta’s research project is scheduled to end in September 2023 – other researchers could be allowed to last up to five years. The results of the 69 CI scholarship research projects will be published in a wide variety of scientific journals.

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