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Tyler Starr

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Since the pandemic started, Tyler Starr has seen his scientific specialty — essentially, the evolutionary arms race between viruses and hosts, and how mutations affect proteins — emerge from biological arcana to frontpage news. 

In February 2020, his adviser at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center asked him to look into something coronavirus-related, but at the time, Starr, a postdoctoral fellow, was hoping it wouldn’t distract from the progress he was making on an HIV project. 

Of course, some 19 months later, Starr is immersed in studying how SARS-CoV-2’s proteins have shifted, how the virus is continuing to mutate, and what that means for the course of the pandemic. His grandmother has come to him with evolutionary virology questions.

“From that perspective, it’s kind of crazy and fun,” he said. “But it’s also stressful because I feel like scientists are always used to being very, very conservative and you take a long time to say something definitively.”

People ask him about the pandemic as if he has all the answers. But the future of Covid-19 — and science itself — is filled with uncertainty, so he’s had to balance that with providing people with some clarity. “It’s been a lesson in communicating to the broader public.” 

The experience has also shaped some of the questions Starr himself is now asking. He’s curious about SARS-related coronaviruses more broadly, and wants to look at the evolutionary histories of their proteins to see how these pathogens — which normally reside in bats —have evolved to use receptors on our cells to establish infections. Understanding those changes, Starr said, could also reveal how other viral families become human threats.

— Andrew Joseph