It's Jodi Hadden-Perilla's first year teaching at the University of Delaware, and it may end up being one of the most important in her career.
Beyond navigating the new hurdles brought on by social distancing measures, Hadden-Perilla and her colleague and husband, Juan Perilla, are also racing to develop a complex computer model that could guide the development of treatments and vaccines to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
"If you understand how something works, you can understand how to intervene to stop it from working," the 36-year-old computational virologist said. "If we have details about how the structure moves and behaves, what it looks like, down to the level of all atoms, that’s the information that leads to designing drugs that would target the virus."
The two researchers, who are both assistant professors in UD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, received a $200,000 Rapid Response Research program grant from the National Science Foundation last month for their work, which relies on advanced supercomputers that can model the virus down to each atom.
They're also working directly – albeit virtually – with UD students and a third research partner, Tyler Reddy, a computational virologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"The sooner that we can come up with information, the sooner that information could be used to really impact people," Hadden-Perilla said.
The model basics could be ready within a few weeks, Perilla told the university's UDaily publication.
The NSF grant also offers them remote access to the Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the newest and most powerful of its kind in the world. Remote capabilities also allow them, and students, to access on-campus resources needed for their work.
Using expensive and complex technology like supercomputers is key to understanding this novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, through its life cycle.
By building a model of the virus and running simulations of how it would behave in a natural environment, the scientists can better understand how it moves, how it changes its shape, how it interacts with elements of its environment, and even how it's able to cloak itself in the face of an immune system response.
"It’s actually like being able to zoom in and watch this thing in action, down to the level of individual atoms," she said. "There’s no microscope in the world that can get you to that level of simulation."
Just like other scientists must spend a vast amount of time living in the wild with apes to understand how their society functions, the behavior of viruses must be observed to understand how they can wreak havoc on human health – and subsequently, to understand what elements to target to stop it from causing harm.
"If you want to see how a machine works, you have to turn it on and watch it," Hadden-Perilla said. "All this time, there's pressure to get something done because people are dying."
Previous work that Hadden-Perilla did on Hepatitis B showed her that how a virus interacts with its environment is a key factor in truly understanding how it works, she said.
Meanwhile, Perilla – known for his work on HIV – used similar computational methods to fill in gaps that offered new insights into the virus that causes AIDS infections.
"There are not many people in the world that have the type of expertise we do," she said. "Between the three of us, we have a really unique skill set to put towards this."
A full understanding of the novel coronavirus's behaviors is not yet known. Because of that, researchers are missing this basic information that could guide the development of efficient treatments and vaccines to combat the sometimes deadly viral respiratory illness that has now infected more than 1 million people worldwide.
"Viruses are very efficient, very highly evolved," she said. "None of this stuff is there by accident. All these parts have a job."
Other research work being done around the world has focused heavily on the protein spikes on the coronavirus's membrane envelope that inspired its solar corona-based name.
Those spike proteins have been identified as a key element in the virus's ability to attach to a host cell, and the thought is that if that process can be stopped, so could the disease caused by a viral infection.
"It’s only just a piece of the entire virus," Hadden-Perilla said. "What we’re trying to do is build the whole thing."
Understanding the jobs of each element of the virus — those spike proteins included — is vital to figuring out what elements of the virus can be targeted to help stave off the public health crisis caused by COVID-19.
"We’re stuck at home, but are getting to know the virus and all the dirty details," she said. "We’re really lucky in the big scheme of things because right now, a lot of experimental labs are just shut down. ... We remain fully functional."
Meanwhile, unused gift cards given in celebration of their wedding last summer have funded the vital caffeine production equipment fueling their work – an espresso machine they purchased just as stay-at-home, work-from-home orders went into effect.
"Work for us hasn’t slowed down, it's sped up," she said. "It’s pretty surreal for us and our students."
It takes a lot of time to build something so complex, and it takes time to watch and learn how the simulations of the virus in an environment akin to the human body ultimately play out. But this team of scientists and students are working as fast as they can to get those answers as quickly as possible.
Their research may be a bit ahead of the game compared to others just now diving in, as she and her husband had started thinking about the need for this kind of research in early January as reports of COVID-19 poured out of China.
When the American Physical Society conference they were planning to attend in Denver at the beginning of March got canceled because of the stateside coronavirus outbreak, they knew they had to act immediately.
"We need answers now," she said.
It will ultimately be up to other scientists and researchers to take their findings and suggestions to develop effective vaccines and drugs to fight the coronavirus, but Hadden-Perilla said she's excited to be working toward something that could have a vastly positive impact on public health.
"It's also a lot of pressure," she said. "And so many other people are working on this at the same time. It’s just wild."