professor and student looking at a virus on a screen

Mapping omicron: Students worked feverishly to publish breakthrough research

February 14, 2022


Junior Camryn Carter has been working closely with chemistry professor Carol Parish since the summer of 2020 to design drugs that can combat COVID-19. 

The researchers, which also include junior Haley Gladden, and UR alum Justin Airas, are focusing on how the virus infects human cells. As part of that continuing work, they built a structural model of how the spike protein interacts with human cells. The spike protein juts out from the surface of the viral particle. Long term, they hope to design a drug that will block the protein from anchoring to receptors on human cells, which become the entry point for the virus. 

The coronavirus spike protein is labeled ‘S’ in this image. Source: CDC.

When news reports of a highly infectious viral mutant began to surface in November 2021, the University of Richmond was on Thanksgiving break. However, Carter, Airas, and Parish were closely monitoring scientific news for detailed information on the nature of the mutations.

When they received word that omicron contained many mutations in the spike protein, they understood that because of Carter’s drug design project, they had all of the tools necessary to determine how those mutations affected the ability of omicron to gain entry into human cells.  

Carter and Airas performed computational mutations to convert the original protein into the omicron version of the spike. Then they ran simulations on UR’s supercomputer cluster, which showed that the original and omicron versions of the spike protein bind similarly to human cells. The team recently submitted a paper discussing its findings for publication in the journal Scientific Reports — with the Spider junior listed as the first author.  

"Justin Airas and I worked really hard with Dr. Parish to run the simulations, analyze the data, and write up our manuscript,” Carter said. “Most nights, after all my classes and finishing my homework, I would be in the lab running simulations or talking with Justin Airas about the data we were analyzing.”

Remarkably, this project was initiated and completed within two months. Motivated by the urgency of the work, Carter and Airas devoted their school holidays to make it happen, working every day from Nov. 26 to Jan. 5 to complete the research.

“This level of involvement in scientific research is remarkable,” Parish said, “and is a hallmark of a UR education. Even though Carter and Airas are in the early stages of their scientific training, their combination of intellect, work ethic, and UR education allowed them to produce results that are on a par with those generated by scientists at national labs.”

While the omicron variant is more infectious, the results showed that the infectivity is not due to an enhanced affinity between the mutated spike protein and receptors on the surface of our cells, Parish said.  

“You cannot become a scientist without doing science,” Parish said of her lab. “When students are involved in research, they are able to exercise their intellectual talents in pursuit of solutions to important problems, while exploring their passions for helping humankind, working hard, and learning to effectively and confidently communicate their scientific results.

Undergraduate research is the hallmark of a University of Richmond education, and the education that science students receive at UR is the best in the world. Our students graduate with significant experience functioning as scientists, and they are ready to solve big, important problems.”