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Using bioinformatics to untangle second-most widespread parasitic disease

Sitting humbly in his silence, gathering dozens of pages of data, New Mexico State University student Cesar Montelongo is tucked away in a biology lab eager to make his mark on society. Montelongo is a biology master’s graduate with a unique past, inspiring story and bright future.

Snail in hand
Cesar Montelongo, graduate researcher for the Maria Castillo Immunology lab, pulls out a snail to conduct live testing. The snails are being used to determine which genome causes disease resistance. (Submitted photo)
Group photo of family
Cesar Montelongo, recipient of the Outstanding Graduate Award by the Hispanic Faculty and Staff Caucus, waits with his family during the end-of-the-year ceremony. (Submitted photo)

He is part of a team of researchers using live snail tissue and bioinformatics to identify immune factors in the Biomphalaria glabrata snail. The research, shared and reachable worldwide, sequences and annotates the B. glabrata genome. Information gained from the snail is helping scientists determine how humans become infected with schistomiasis, the second-most widespread parasitic disease in tropical and sub-tropical areas, next to malaria.

The disease is acquired when people come into contact with fresh water that has been infested with the larval form of schistosomes. When these microscopic parasites become adults, they embed themselves into a person’s veins, draining the urinary tract and intestines. Eggs laid by these worms become trapped in the body’s tissue and trouble arises when the body begins to respond, by fighting off the attacker and the body.

By controlling the snail vectors and browsing specific genomes, scientists and researchers are able to hypothesize how the snails may resist becoming infected themselves by the parasite.

Bioinformatics is the process in which scientists and doctors manage biological information. It is the area where Montelongo believes he can make a difference in patients’ lives.

“I have a hope that bioinformatics will make a difference in how patients are treated, and overall how the medical field works,” he said. “My father became very sick in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and for the longest time we had no idea what was wrong with him. With my father incapacitated and all the violence throughout the city, that made a huge impression on me. It was in that moment I decided I wanted to become the kind of person who could prevent that.”

Conducted in the immunology lab operated by Assistant Professor Maria Castillo, the project is giving students insight into how the human body resists infection. Though most of the breakthroughs are hypothetical, Montelongo is helping to determine a way to break the cycle from the parasite to the snail.

Montelongo graduated with a master’s in biology and minor in molecular biology. He received a bachelor of science in biology, microbiology, a bachelor of arts in Spanish and minors in chemistry and biochemisty.

This year, he will be continuing his education at the Stritch School of Medicine in the Loyola University of Chicago Health and Sciences Division. He was one of two students given entry into the M.D./Ph.D. dual degree program, awarding him with full tuition and academic financial support.

It is both an accomplishment and triumph for Cesar to make it this far – all the while without holding legal citizenship status.

Montelongo and his family are from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. After spending summers as seasonal farm workers in the United States, he and his family decided to make a permanent move when he was in fifth grade.

“Paperwork had been submitted to obtain a green card, but the wait back then was somewhere around 12 years and is currently around 20 years,” Montelongo said. “We decided to come here as undocumented citizens. I began middle and high school, but I always knew I was different. The moment we came here, I knew I wasn’t like everyone else.”

Local scholarships allowed Montelongo to complete his bachelor’s education in four years, like many of his peers. The difference, however, was that they would go on to find careers in their field, while he stayed behind, working odd jobs to help his family.

In 2012, his circumstances changed. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program fitted Montelongo with a Social Security number and a renewable work permit for two years; it was through this program he was able to pursue his master’s degree.

“Once I had DACA, I made it a point to get involved in the community,” Montelongo said. “I volunteered at La Casa, became involved with Chicano Programs, the Planning Awareness for College Excellence organization and helped with the biology graduate organization. Once you start volunteering, you wish you had more time because you begin to love it so much. It can improve your outlook on everything you’re doing.”

He was elected as president of the Hispanic Council for the 2014-2015 academic year, joined the Immigrant Rights Committee, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern New Mexico, and lobbied among other students at the state capitol in favor of the Lottery Scholarship.

Upon receiving his master’s degree, Montelongo was nominated Most Outstanding Graduate, among the Hispanic Faculty and Staff Caucus.

“Within the DACA students, we are the first of that generation to begin breaking down barriers and we are gaining the experience so the students who come after us have a groundwork to work from,” Montelongo said. “There’s still a long way to go.”

This summer Cesar will defend his thesis on schistosomiasis and its immunological interaction between its snail host and how the parasite affects humans.