Can a computer really predict how a bug's immune system might fight off an unknown pathogen? That’s the question Vincent Peta will spend the next two years trying to answer.

Peta, who graduated from Mitchell High School in 2010, was recently named a Computing Innovation Fellow — the first South Dakotan to ever earn the prestigious fellowship.

The CI Fellow program was founded in 2009, with encouragement from the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer Science and Engineering, in an effort to provide a flood of expected doctoral graduates in the area of computer science.

Since the pandemic, the fellowship adjusted its scope to aid recent and soon-to-be doctoral computing graduates whose job search was hampered by the continued disruption COVID-19 has had on academic job hiring practices and the economy.

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

Newsletter signup for email alerts

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

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

“I thought, 'This was really cool, but I don’t know if I want to do plants for the rest of my life,’” Peta said. “It was my boss at the time who said, ‘If you really like it, why don’t you stay on for grad school?’”

After completing his master’s and doctorate degrees — the latter earned during the height of the pandemic — Peta said he had trouble finding the right job. He applied for a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of South Dakota and eventually the CI Fellowship.

Over the course of the next two years, he’ll be working on his latest research project: “Prediction of Protein Structure and Function to Identify Novel Mechanisms of Resistance to Vector-Borne Pathogens in Insects.”

The research — under the mentorship of USD biomedical engineering assistant professor Etienne Gnimpieba and biomedical sciences assistant professor Jose Pietri — will examine proteins in an insect’s immune system and use computer science to attempt to predict how a novel pathogen might affect the insect’s health and the pathogen's transmissibility to a human host.

Etienne Gnimpieba (left), a biomedical engineering assistant professor, and Jose Pietri (right), a biomedical sciences assistant professor, will both work with Peta on his Computing Innovation Fellowship project. Photos courtesy of the University of South Dakota
Etienne Gnimpieba (left), a biomedical engineering assistant professor, and Jose Pietri (right), a biomedical sciences assistant professor, will both work with Peta on his Computing Innovation Fellowship project. Photos courtesy of the University of South Dakota

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

Because most studies of unknown proteins in an immune system take a year to complete a process known as crystallization, using computer programs to predict protein characteristics can significantly speed up the process.

“That’s why a lot of this prediction stuff comes into play in biology, because we can now look at a protein in a day or week and base our experiments off that rather than taking a year to study a protein physically,” Peta explained.

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

“This is kind of like an offshoot of the bed bug work, which was looking at if bed bugs can spread germs or disease like a tick or mosquito would,” Peta said. “When you look back at a lot of the research, people say bed bugs can't. Now, we know bedbugs can harbor pathogens that can make us sick.”

Formerly called deer ticks, blacklegged  ticks like this one crawling on skin, can carry multiple diseases, including Lyme. As ticks get more active in May experts are urging people outdoors to use repellents to keep them away. Contributed photo / U.S. Department of Agriculture
Formerly called deer ticks, blacklegged ticks like this one crawling on skin, can carry multiple diseases, including Lyme. As ticks get more active in May experts are urging people outdoors to use repellents to keep them away. Contributed photo / U.S. Department of Agriculture

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

“Our biggest goal is to predict how when a bacteria enters into a tick, for example, why does that not make a tick sick, but when it enters into a human it makes us sick,” Peta said. “It’s programmed to make people sick but what’s turning it on to make a human sick?”

Peta’s research project is expected to wrap up in September 2023 — other researchers may be authorized to run as long as five years. Findings from the 69 CI Fellowship research projects will be published in a wide variety of scientific journals.