Tech alumus chosen to run second largest GTRI lab

In November, Jim McGarrah, MS ME ‘79, took a position with GTRI as the director of its Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory (ITTL). Prior to joining GTRI, McGarrah worked as special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and had a 25-year career with Southern Bell, BellSouth and Cingular Wireless.

GTRI is a non-profit venture that has performed applied research for sponsor organizations since 1934. These organizations, from both the private and public sector, work with GTRI to combine industry expertise with theoretical knowledge. ITTL is the second-largest of the seven labs at GTRI.

“GTRI is the applied research [section] of Tech,” McGarrah said. “The academic institution and resident instruction staff do a lot of basic research, sort of the theoretical underpinnings of things.”

During his telecommunications career McGarrah was a Navy reservist and went on multiple tours of active duty. ITTL has projects in the private sector and in defense, giving McGarrah an opportunity to “…leverage [his] background in telecommunications, government, managing and leading complex organizations,” he said.

As a graduate student in ME at Tech, McGarrah had limited contact with GTRI, then called the Engineering Experiment Station.

“I interviewed with them for a graduate research assistantship, and I ended up taking a graduate teaching assistantship … because it was better aligned with what I was doing academically,” McGarrah said. He also had a cousin who spent multiple years as a researcher for GTRI.

McGarrah thinks the relationship between GTRI and Tech has improved. “I’ve seen not only a focus on greater collaboration,” McGarrah said. “I’ve already been involved in a number of collaborative meetings with the academic side of the institute.”

Such collaborations include GTRI participation in projects such as the Georgia Tech Information Security Center, which is overseen by College of Computing faculty.

McGarrah’s primary role is to manage the ITTL staff and resources. In addition to overseeing administrative issues, McGarrah also works with strategy for GTRI by investigating where ITTL fits in with the other labs and how different collaboration can improve ITTL. McGarrah also serves Tech through some peripheral roles. Currently, McGarrah is serving on the search committee for a new dean in the College of Computing.

“The thing that has impressed me here is the breadth of what’s going on in terms of the number of different and diverse sponsors at the state, local and federal level,” McGarrah said.

Through GTRI, McGarrah is able to work with researchers on projects ranging from national defense to implementing new technology in K through 12 classrooms.

The relationship between GTRI and Tech can be unclear to students, who may have limited contact with the labs.

Typically, GTRI research staff have some contact with resident teaching staff to discuss relevant theoretical knowledge and research pertinent to sponsor projects.

Student interaction can be limited to research positions. At any given time, ITTL employs up to 40 students in part-time and co-op positions, as well as graduate research assistants.