Colombian scientist Javier Jaimes preparing some samples for processing at the Gary Whittaker … [+]
Colombian researcher Javier Jaimes works at Cornell University studying viruses including the novel coronavirus disease – COVID-19 – that has been making headlines around the world.
Jaimes said he was the first in his family to go to university and a last-minute decision to study at veterinary school led him down the path to studying viruses.
“Everything changed when I took the virology course, because I learned about these cool tiny things that were not even considered alive, but still could infect, replicate and transmit between hosts, but using only those host’s cellular machinery to their own benefit,” he said.
Jaimes said his career eventually took him to the US, where he has worked on a project to develop a vaccine against the MERS-CoV (a virus that originated in the Arabian peninsula in 2012 and has caused 858 deaths, mainly in the Middle East and South Korea). Then, at the start of 2020, Jaimes and his colleagues started to look into SARS-CoV-2, the virus that is causing the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19.
Jaimes says his main project right now is to study the novel coronavirus spike (S) protein and how it is activated to enable the infection of human cells. If scientists can better understand this interaction, they can better understand the virus.
“Since the first week of January, we have been working mostly on this new virus, using the same approach we used for other coronaviruses,” he said, “Working with ‘high-profile” viruses is quite interesting and I want to believe that whatever I’m doing with my research, could contribute with fighting these pathogens and prevent more people to suffer the consequences of the infection.”
He says that speed is a key factor in this kind of research, particularly when it comes to COVID-19.
“It’s also challenging, because we have to work as fast as we can, but without compromising the quality of our research, and the whole scientific community as well as the government agencies have their eyes over our work,” he said, “For most people outside the sciences, the words SARS, MERS or coronavirus meant nothing until the last few weeks.
“Now, every time I say I work on these viruses or more specifically in “the” new coronavirus, people can’t avoid to “jump back” as a reaction, as if I had the virus in my hands at that precise moment.”
He said that when he is talking to people outside of scientific circles, it is very interesting because immediately after their “jump-back” reaction, those same people usually start asking questions about the current COVID-19 emergency.
“I am always happy to respond and clear as many doubts they have,” he said, “We are currently facing a huge influx of misinformation and as scientists, we have the responsibility to counter all that misinformation and help people understanding the reality of the COVID-19 situation.”
Jaimes said that in the future, he is really interested in studying the viral diseases that emerge in tropical environments and have serious health consequences.
“Most of these viruses – like hantavirus or other bunyavirus – are still not well understood from a parthenogenesis point of view and are an important cause of disease and mortality in developing countries,” he said, “That is why I’m so interested in study those viruses to be able to provide new tools to prevent and control the diseases they cause.”
Colombian scientist Javier Jaimes showing a structural model of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 at … [+]
Another Colombian scientist at Cornell is Ana-Maria Porras, who is a biological engineer and science communicator.
Porras says she realized that she had spent her entire career studying diseases that affected primarily people in developed countries, which is why as a post-doc at Cornell, she shifted gears and now studies the human gut microbiome and how it varies between people in developed and developing countries.”
Another Colombian with a passion for microbes is Leonor Garcia-Bayona who now works at the Comstock lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School.
Garcia-Bayona says our understanding of what determines which bacteria are present in our gut and how they interact with each other and with us, their human host is really in very early stages, which is why she has focused on it.