Alumna combines her interests in HIV treatment, chronic pain and addiction medicine as a researcher, clinician and educator
By Emily PayneMedia Inquiries
As a kid, Jessica Merlin remembers going to the Buhl Science Center for a robotics class. Her parents had encouraged her from a young age to never be afraid to express interest in math and science. That was incredibly freeing, recalls Merlin.
She gravitated toward science and, particularly, medicine since high school, when following her ninth-grade biology class, she went to the University of Pittsburgh bookstore and bought a college-level textbook to learn more about the science behind the medicine that interested her.
Merlin came to Carnegie Mellon University and majored in biology, with an additional major in history and policy. She also joined the university’s Health Professions Program with the intent of heading to medical school after her undergraduate studies.
After graduating in 2000, she immediately entered a joint M.D./M.B.A. program at the University of Pennsylvania. She was broadly interested in the internal medicine field but didn’t know how to narrow that interest to a specific area or population.
The experience she needed to find her footing in the medical world finally came near the end of her medical school career. In 2004, Merlin joined the Botswana-UPenn Partnership (BUP). BUP is a collaboration between the government of Botswana’s Ministry of Health, the University of Botswana and the University of Pennsylvania to improve health care, research and clinical care surrounding the treatment of HIV/AIDS and its complications.
Through BUP, Merlin conducted research and provided clinical care — and it's where she found her calling. She wanted her career to be at the intersection of developing treatment and being able to care for people who were in pain and who were sick.
“I came back from (Botswana) and was like ‘this is what I want to do,’” she said.
Merlin returned to Botswana two more times, once while completing her internal medicine residency and again while completing a fellowship in infectious diseases, both at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2011, she began a fellowship in palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she participated in a mentoring program with an infectious disease hospital in Vietnam to help bridge the gap between HIV care and palliative care.
Her experiences in Botswana and Vietnam shaped the trajectory of her career. She realized that she wanted to take care of people living with HIV in the United States but also to do research in this area.
This led her to her first faculty position at the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). She was appointed an assistant professor in the department of medicine and director of the HIV Pain/Palliative Care Clinic at UAB’s 1917 Clinic. Once there, she learned that many patients with HIV also experienced chronic pain, though there wasn’t a clear understanding at the time of the relationship between the two, and were relying on opioids.
She found herself at the beginning stages of recognizing the dangerous effects of long-term opioid use. “This was in 2011, just as people were starting to realize that opioids were not appropriate for chronic pain.”
Merlin spent the next several years of her career building a research program focused on behavioral therapy for chronic pain in people living with HIV, and later expanded the scope to chronic pain in primary care patients and opioid misuse and addiction.
As her interests in opioid addiction and pain treatment grew, she started looking for institutions that had a similar focus on the intersections of these areas of medicine. In 2017, Merlin left UAB to join the Department of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
Here, Merlin’s research still focuses on chronic pain in people living with HIV, and she leads the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s pain clinic at the Pittsburgh AIDS Center for Treatment (PACT). She also obtained her board certification in addiction medicine and helped start an addiction medicine program at PACT.
In addition to her clinical and research interests, teaching has been an important part of Merlin’s career, a seed that started at Carnegie Mellon. Merlin was one of the first Supplemental Instruction (SI) leaders. SI leaders are mentors and tutors who facilitate discussion and review sessions for difficult classes at which they excelled.
“That’s where I learned I loved to teach,” Merlin said. “A big component of my career has always been teaching medical students, residents and fellows.”
Coming back to Pittsburgh also encouraged Merlin to reconnect with her alma mater. She attended a Networking Dinner as part of the Mellon College of Science’s junior seminar course, PROPEL. At the dinner, Merlin connected with a student interested in medical school. The pair met for coffee, and their discussion spurred Merlin to give a guest lecture in the student’s Chemistry of Addiction course last fall. Merlin soon learned the professor of the course was Bruce Armitage, whom she worked with as a SI leader for his organic chemistry class many years ago.
“That is the way the world works,” Merlin said heartily.