A research ethics pilgrimage: My experience at the 2013 AER Conference

by Patrick Okonta, MD, FWACS, FMCOG, MPH, research ethics committee chair and senior lecturer in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Delta State University Teaching Hospital

I attended PRIM&R’s Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference this past November for the first time. I was one of ten attendees who were fortunate to receive international an scholarships from PRIM&R to attend the meeting, which took place in Boston from November 7-9, 2013.

During my training in research ethics at the University of Pretoria under the South African Research Ethics Training Initiative (SARETI), a National Institutes of Health-funded project to increase capacity for research ethics in Africa, I had heard about the AER Conference as being a kind of “mecca” for ethicists. I anxiously looked forward to the year that I would have an opportunity to embark on a pilgrimage to the conference. My opportunity came in 2013 when I received one of PRIM&R’s Global Research Scholarships, and the reality more than exceeded my expectations. I learned about ethical challenges in groundbreaking research being conducted in  developed countries, as well as resource-scarce settings. I also had the opportunity to make new friends and share ideas.

As a scholarship recipient, I was invited to participate in a site visit to Partners HealthCare and Boston Children’s Hospital the day before the conference began. Our hosts, PRIM&R Board Members P. Pearl O’Rourke, MD, and Susan Z. Kornetsky, MPH, gave us a warm welcome. During our time at Partners, we observed the deliberations of a preparatory IRB meeting, which made me appreciate the amount of work that occurs before a full board meeting. The tour of Boston Children’s Hospital was also quite revealing. I marveled at the amount of resources—human and infrastructure—that were dedicated to research. I couldn’t help but contrast it with the virtually nonexistent research infrastructure found in most developing countries. The day ended with a reception to welcome the scholarship recipients, and I was particularly delighted to meet Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, PRIM&R’s executive director emerita, who personally welcomed all of us to the event.

The following day, I attend a pre-conference program titled Ethical Issues in Global Research, which set the stage for what would be a robust and intensive scientific conference. I found the panel discussion on Ethical Considerations for HIV and Infectious Disease Research and Prevention very interesting and something that I could relate to given the research setting in which I work.  

The sessions during the main conference were also fantastic. I found Atul Gawande’s keynote address to be captivating. He is a master storyteller, and he managed to keep the audience engaged without the use of audiovisual aids. Dr. Gawande encouraged the audience to think about health care delivery and building systems that work seamlessly to produce excellent results even in cases where the possibility of a good outcome may seem remote. The didactic sessions and workshops were equally interesting and informative. I particularly enjoyed the presentation by Sara Lavinia Brair, MBBS, MD, during the plenary session titled Applying the Belmont Principles Across Borders and Cultures.

I was also pleased to be able to share my work in a poster presentation titled Scientific Misconduct: Attitudes, Perceptions and Related Factors in a Developing Country. I enjoyed fruitful discussions with those who showed interest in my work.

After returning to my home country, Nigeria, I shared my experience at the conference with my colleagues on my research ethics committee and with the chief medical director of our institution. My experience served to deepen their interest in research ethics.

I am immensely grateful to PRIM&R for giving me the opportunity to attend the 2013 AER Conference in Boston, and, hopefully, I will be able to return one day soon.