The hunt for emerging coronavirus variants keeps Torin Hunter busy testing samples from sewer systems across Missouri.
As a part of The Sewershed Surveillance Project, Hunter has spent the last year and a half taking each test tube and carefully filtering the samples to contribute data on how SARS-CoV-2 can be present in our communities.
But Hunter started his journey in virology like many — a student trying to sift through all the different subjects and figuring out what fit him the best. He tried out clinical jobs and considered going into the health professions, but he began to miss the lab and research more than he thought.
“I missed the freedom and the creativity you get from research while still being able to do science and complete it all by yourself. It’s more fun and satisfying to me,” said Hunter, a senior research technician in the Marc Johnson lab at Bond LSC.
Virology, the study of viruses, stuck for Hunter.
“I like the blend of molecular virology and epidemiology here because it is fascinating to see the public health implications of what we are studying,” he said. “Even though our work has focused on coronavirus in the past few years, I would still want to be doing this type of work even if it were involving a different virus.”
As a senior research technician, Hunter enjoys projects where he can think through an experiment and work backward if problems arise. Using his analytical skills, he can determine if the experiment was meant to go in a certain way or if the issues can be boiled down to human errors made along the way.
“Starting an experiment and then getting real results from it that make sense is the most exciting part of my job,” Hunter said. “Knowing that I did it by myself and that I accomplished something I worked hard on is a great feeling.”
Originally from Orange County, California, Hunter moved to Missouri when he was 16 and knew he wanted to attend the University of Missouri not long after that. In high school, he began to take an interest in the inner workings of cells, which is where biochemistry comes into his life.
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in health science from Mizzou and his master’s degree in microbiology and cell science from the University of Florida. When Hunter took his first undergraduate class in biochemistry, he became hooked on the subject and its value in a research setting.
“Biochemistry is when everything clicked in the life sciences for me, and it made the most sense to me, but the subject is so broad that I still didn’t know exactly where to go from there.”
Hunter works daily with samples of human waste systems across the state. He extracts viral nucleic acids (such as DNA or RNA) out of the samples using polyethylene glycol or magnetic beads and sends them off to a collaborating lab. The lab then performs digital polymerase chain reaction (dPCR) to quantify, or measure, the viral load of SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater samples. The process can be compared to a nasal swab coronavirus test, but instead of simply measuring the virus’ presence, the amount of virus in the sample is measured as well.
The amount of each marker is graphed on a chart, and these charts are analyzed and monitored in collaboration with public health officials to compare trends across the state. Hunter finds it interesting to learn about how different viruses cause disease.
“If we can better understand why and how viruses cause harm to people, we can develop more therapeutic or preventative options like vaccines and help a lot of people in the long run,” Hunter said.
Hunter performs these steps often and finds that this type of work takes a certain amount of discipline. He meticulously combs over his notes and studies the details of his experiments and what might have gone wrong in the procedure.
“You go through every possible way that something could go wrong, but if those are still your results, you might just have to go further back in your process or go in a different direction entirely,” Hunter said. “That’s what makes this work so interesting, is that you’re always problem-solving.”
In his time away from the lab, Hunter enjoys playing video games, weightlifting, and cooking to turn his brain off after a day of experimentation.
“It’s important and healthy to have a work-life balance,” Hunter said. “I will often think of new dinner recipes to try and make as my own way of experimenting at home.”
After his research at Bond LSC, he plans to apply for Ph.D. programs this fall to continue his studies in virology. Specifically, he would like to learn more about immune responses to viral infections.
“Everybody has to work, and if you’re going to work hard at something, you might as well do the thing that you enjoy the most,” Hunter said.