Meet the Marshal: Pathology Professor Nam Tran

He Helped Develop a COVID-19 Test in 19 Days in the Early Days of the Pandemic

A man stands in front of a mechanized laboratory machine that processes medical samples.
Professor Nam Tran stands in front of the Roche cobas 6800, which allowed UC Davis to quickly scale up COVID-19 testing in 2020.

In a nod to the crucial role of science and testing during the pandemic, Nam Tran, a professor of clinical pathology, has been named parade marshal for UC Davis’ 108th Picnic Day, being held in person on the Davis campus this Saturday, April 23.

“I hope my role as parade marshal raises awareness about the amazing work done by pathologists, clinical laboratory scientists, public health personnel, infectious disease and prevention experts, and many others over these last two years,” said Tran, who earned three degrees on the Davis campus. “I also hope it encourages future Aggies to consider pursuing careers within these related disciplines.”

Tran is the senior director of clinical pathology at UC Davis Health and a key figure in COVID-19 testing.

Over the past two years, he emerged as a national spokesperson for diagnostic lab science. He has been a trustworthy authority in dozens of news stories to help the public understand COVID-19 testing, including different testing options, why PCR is the gold standard and why it’s not a good idea to swab your throat for the antigen test.

Tran said he was humbled and appreciative at being chosen marshal. “I will be there to represent the many UC Davis laboratory professionals who joined the fight against COVID-19,” he said.

Students wave from atop a fire truck during Picnic Day parade
The parade opening ceremony will kick off at 9:30 at the grandstands on North Quad Avenue across from Wickson Hall. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

‘Rediscovering Tomorrow’

Picnic Day, held almost annually since 1909, has grown into a campuswide open house, one of the largest student-run events in the nation, showcasing the richness of diversity and achievements at UC Davis. This year’s theme is “Rediscovering Tomorrow,” as the campus community rediscovers the joy of an in-person Picnic Day for the first time since 2019. Parking on campus is free on Picnic Day.


Opening ceremonies, including the introduction of Tran as the parade marshal, begin at 9:30 a.m. at the grandstands on North Quad Avenue outside Wickson Hall. The parade will start there at 10:30 a.m., winding its way to downtown Davis and back, and will be livestreamed.

Tran’s colleague Sergio Rodriguez, chemistry supervisor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, may join him on the parade marshal’s float, but he is unsure who else. “Lab folks are shy!” Tran quipped.

In advance of Picnic Day, Tran will participate in a Zoom session, “Meet the 2022 Picnic Day Marshal,” noon Tuesday, April 19, highlighting the university’s unique accomplishments during the pandemic.

Rapid response

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Tran and his colleagues gained national attention for developing a COVID-19 diagnostic test from scratch in just 19 days for the then-novel coronavirus. UC Davis’ Good Manufacturing Practice Facility helped by producing the necessary viral transport media. Four additional COVID-19 testing platforms were deployed by June, including a two-hour rapid test for the Emergency Department.

When very little was known about the virus, Tran implemented a process to save infected patients’ COVID-19 clinical samples via the UC Davis Health biorepository, so they could be used in future research in collaboration with the Davis campus.

By fall 2020, Tran’s team rolled out a rapid 20-minute PCR test that could detect both flu and COVID-19. In the spring of 2021, Tran and his collaborators debuted a novel COVID-19 testing platform, for use outside health care facilities, in collaboration with industry partner SpectraPass.

Tran also worked to gear up statewide testing as a member of the California COVID-19 Testing Task Force and served on University of California COVID committees.

The battle isn’t over

The parade marshal said he enjoys seeing people’s faces again in situations where masks are no longer required — but noted that the battle against COVID-19 is not over.

“The challenge is to address what we have learned during the pandemic — such as the existing health disparities exacerbated by the pandemic, the limitations of current tests, and the unknowns related SARS-CoV-2 infection. The virus still has a lot to teach us,” Tran said.

Tran majored in biochemistry and molecular biology as an undergraduate, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 2003, and went on to earn a Master of Science degree in pharmacology and toxicology and a Ph.D. in comparative pathology.

His graduate and postgraduate research focused on developing molecular infectious disease tests for use in critical, emergency and disaster situations. This research for UC Davis’ Point-of-Care Technologies Center laid the groundwork for Tran and his team to tackle the testing complexities presented by COVID-19.

In addition to supporting the fight against COVID-19, Tran continues research in point-of-care testing. He is the principal investigator responsible for the inaugural buildup of the new Center for Diagnostic Innovation in Sacramento.

“I am looking forward to seeing Picnic Day and the parade from a different perspective,” Tran said. “So much hard work goes into planning such a large event. It will be nice to see the community come together and share all that is great about UC Davis!”

Staying safe at Picnic Day

Organizers said the event will adhere to all state, county and campus public health guidelines, with face coverings strongly recommended (and required on public transit and in health care settings). People who are feeling sick are asked to stay home.

Indoor events and animal exhibits may require the Daily Symptom Survey at their own discretion, which is available for both campus affiliates and guests.

Media Resources

Lisa Howard is a senior public information officer with UC Davis Health, and can be reached by email or at 916-752-6394.

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