BILLINGS — When the COVID crisis took off in the United States in March 2020, Billings native Jon Laurent found himself in the middle of it, literally, as a scientific researcher at New York University, where his career changed in the blink of an eye.
"We could see from our lab window the refrigerated trucks, the temporary morgue tents set up," Laurent said. "Some other post-doc students and I took one day off, and then we jumped back in to pivot to COVID testing."
Almost two years later, the Billings Skyview and Montana State University-Billings grad is now one of the most important figures in the country’s fight, as the head of research and development of New York’s Pandemic Response Lab. As a scientist, he's not used to the spotlight.
"It’s been crazy," Laurent said of the attention. "Scientists are used to working behind the scenes, so it's been fun but pretty wild."
Last week, the lab discovered New York’s first case of the Omicron variant and now handles the majority of New York City's variant and mutation testing.
"It’s really incredible to be able to work as a scientist and be given the opportunity to make your work benefit so many people," Laurent said.
"Right away, it was apparent (Jon) was a great student," said Dr. David Butler, professor of genetics and molecular biology at MSUB. "I could see he was going to be a star."
Laurent did research under Butler during his undergrad years, but Laurent’s path started much earlier, the way many Montana scientists' do.
"I was very into dinosaurs as a kid," he laughed. "I went to the Museum of the Rockies multiple times every year."
Laurent’s dad, Bill, says Jon may have discovered his calling during his senior year at Skyview, when his mother was diagnosed with ALS. She died just weeks into Jon's college freshman year.
"He had a natural ability to learn science," Butler said, "and he seemed to really love genetics."
"I've always had a fascination for why things are the way that they are," Laurent said.
Omicron consumes him now, but he hopes that soon won’t be the case.
"I would and do want COVID-19 to disappear, even though it is the primary driver of my current employment," Laurent said. "My primary driver right now is actually past COVID, thinking about the next tests, the next assays, and the next platforms that we're developing."
Maybe it’ll be finding a cure for a familiar disease.