New Faculty Spotlight: Santiago Cuesta

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DLS is excited to welcome Dr. Santiago Cuesta, who is joining the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in January 2023. He comes to us from University of Texas (UT) Southwestern in Dallas, Texas.

Tell me about yourself
I’m from Argentina. I grew up in a small town called Rio Cuarto, located in the heart of the country. After finishing high school, I moved to a larger city, Rosario, were I studied Biotechnology in the National University of Rosario. After graduating, I started my PhD in Biological Sciences at the same institution, under the supervision of Dr. Alejandra Pacchioni, working on the neuroscience of addiction. I then moved to Montreal, Canada, to do a postdoctoral training at MgGill University. During that time, I strengthened my background in addiction, but with a new focus, the developing adolescent brain. Finally, in 2018 I moved to the laboratory of Vanessa Sperandio at UT southwestern, in Dallas. Dr. Sperandio is a leader in the field of interkingdom signaling and has established many molecular mechanisms by which bacteria and host communicate. I used this opportunity to build my research line, evaluate the influence of the gut microbiota - the bacteria that live in our gut - in the development of substance use disorders across life. With this research line I’ll be starting my lab at Rutgers in January 2023, and I’m very excited about it!

I was very lucky to be able to make all this academic journey together with my wife, Florencia, our children: Helena, who was born in Canada, and Milo, here in the States, and our family cat, Coca, who came with us from Argentina.

How did you become interested in science?
Since I was a child, I’ve always been looking for answers about my surroundings. I was the curious kid in a family almost exclusively of lawyers. I have always really liked animals, so I initially wanted to become a vet, or eventually a doctor.

However, when I was in high school, I found a very controversial TV show called “Intervention.” This show basically followed different people living and dealing with the very detrimental effects of addiction in their lives. One participant, who had been long-time drug user, mentioned something that still stays in my mind today: they were using the drug not for the high, but “to feel like themselves again,” like they did before they started abusing the drug. This idea sparked my curiosity and inquisitive spirit, and since then, I’ve wanted to know how drugs of abuse modify the brain. Over the years, this question ultimately evolved into how different environmental factors, not only drugs, end up impacting brain function.

As a student, did you do undergraduate research?
Yes! Indeed, it was a requirement for obtaining my degree in Biotechnology. It was an awesome experience that really shaped my decision to continue pursuing a career in research. This was also, my first approach to neuroscience. My undergrad project dealt with the neurotoxic effects caused by the environmental pollutant vanadium. I was able to use a combination of behavioral, biochemical and histological techniques during this project, which gave me a very good idea of the everyday work in a research lab. I really enjoyed this experience. I had a great and supportive mentor and I was also able to publish two first-author papers, that it was a really important training for my latter career.

What are you researching?
Overall, I’m interested in determining how different environmental factors affect substance use disorders. More specifically, I focus on the gut microbiota, the bacteria that inhabit our gut, and on how these microbial members affect brain maturation and vulnerability to develop addiction and substance use disorders. My lab will be using a multidisciplinary approach to work on this, which will combine behavioral, pharmacological, biochemical and microbiological strategies to dissect actual molecular mechanisms involved in the communication between the gut and the brain. I’m really excited about starting to set up the addiction behavioral models and the different in vitro strategies we will be using to develop our research.

My ultimate goal is to generate translational data that can help the development of therapeutic strategies and early intervention programs directed to reduce the detrimental consequences of addiction and substance use disorders, as well as other psychiatric conditions.

What are you excited about in joining Rutgers University?
There are many reasons why I’m very happy and excited to join Rutgers. This is a very prestigious university with a very diverse group of student and faculty, a characteristic I greatly value. Scientifically, Rutgers has an excellent and very active body of researchers working in countless areas of science and, more specifically, focused on addiction and microbiome, which make it a great place for me to generate collaborative work and create scientific discussion spaces. And last, but not least, I strongly believe that the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience is a perfect academic environment to start my independent career. The diverse research carried on in the department, together with the supportive, inclusive, and vibrant atmosphere created by its members, will surely help my research line thrive.