Meet True Merrill, senior research scientist

True Merrill is proud to be part of the team leading Georgia Tech's Covid-19 surveillance testing program.
True Merrill is a senior research scientist on the team that developed and implemented the Georgia Tech Covid-19 surveillance testing program. (Photo by Allison Carter)

True Merrill is a senior research scientist on the team that developed and implemented the Georgia Tech Covid-19 surveillance testing program. (Photo by Allison Carter)

True Merrill is a team player. When interviewed about his efforts with Georgia Tech’s Covid-19 surveillance testing program he repeatedly said how proud he is to be part of the campuswide team working on it.

“I’ve never had the opportunity in my career to work on a problem where I could help so many people in my own community and see those results in real time,” Merrill said. “Throughout my Ph.D. work and career at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), we’re frequently thinking about either far out future technologies or rare or difficult problems that might occur in the distant future. Now one of those problems is real, and it’s here now. It is really gratifying to feel like we’re able to have an impact today and you see it immediately.”

In his ‘regular’ job as a senior research scientist at GTRI, Merrill’s group works primarily on defense problems related to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) defense.

“We think about worst case scenarios of how to protect soldiers or civilians from chemical or biological attacks,” Merrill said. “We’re a bit of a unicorn because there aren’t many other teams in Georgia who have that kind of thinking experience. That’s part of the reason why when the pandemic occurred we were mobilized to start work on testing."

Merrill is a senior scientist on the team that developed and implemented Georgia Tech's Covid-19 surveillance testing program. His research group has been tracking the coronavirus since January.

“There were points in January and February where we could have told you how many cases were in each Chinese province. We were following it very closely, and so it wasn't a surprise when it was here in March,” he said.

In April the State of Georgia asked GTRI to come up with ways to use the University System of Georgia’s (USG) resources to expand coronavirus testing to support the Georgia Department of Public Health. Early in the pandemic the supply chain for testing supplies was stressed, with critical reagents sometimes backordered for months. To lower costs and reduce supply risk, the GTRI team developed a saliva-based PCR test which uses local and Georgia-based suppliers. GTRI clinically validated the saliva test at specimen point of collection sites operated by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“Our Covid-19 test is actually a story about how the state government, the University System of Georgia, and Georgia's biotech industry were mobilized in order to protect us,” Merrill said, “and how Georgia Tech is also setting an example for other institutions within the USG on how to build a surveillance testing program. Young adults appear to be the primary drivers of the pandemic today, so it’s really essential to control the spread on campuses in order to control it in Georgia. Young people are more mobile and they tend to be more asymptomatic, so they get more people sick without appearing to be sick themselves. To control the degree of spread, testing young people is really important.” 

Since August Georgia Tech has conducted almost 130,000 cumulative surveillance tests.

Merrill said the most rewarding parts of his job are being able to see its immediate impact and working to solve new problems.

“I’m never bored. I have the advantage of working with some of the best colleagues within GTRI and also on campus. There’s really very little that we can’t go tackle, and that is really attractive because it gives you the flexibility to adapt to the really pressing problems,” he said.

“One of the big advantages of working at GTRI is that I can completely change my technical domain and not leave my seat, and I do that all the time. In my current role I work as a chemist and as an optical engineer — and as a biologist, as I am right now in Covid-19 testing,” he said.

Merrill earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Georgia Tech in 2013.

“A long time ago I was more interested in biology than chemistry. But gradually I fell in love with the mathematics behind physical chemistry and as I gained experience I was just really motivated and interested in systems that I could explain with math. So even in physical chemistry I migrated naturally towards physics.”

Away From the Office

True Merrill has been a runner for about 10 years. He ran his first marathon in 2015 and he would like to run another one when he has time to train properly. In the meantime, he runs occasionally through the Druid Hills, Emory University, and Decatur neighborhoods.

“It’s awesome just to be able to see where I can go on my own feet and look at all of things you miss when you’re driving a car,” he said. He also likes to grow cacti and he has a succulent collection.

“They are fascinating plants, so well adapted for the environment they live in, and they come in all kinds of varieties,” he said.

One more thing — True is a family name. Long ago in New Hampshire there was a True Family and a Merrill Family. Through the union of the two families they combined their name to True Merrill.

“I have distant ancestors named Nathaniel True Merrill and James True Merrill,” said Merrill, who is named for his grandfather. “My name is James True Merrill, and I have always been called True.”

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