AER18 Blog Squad Intro Post: Heather Cathrall

Not many children would tell you that they want to be an IRB administrator when they grow up—to this day, not many people, my family included, truly understand what my job entails. In the general population there is a lot of skepticism and misinformation about what it means to be involved in research; I want to be part of a future which changes that.

What appeals most to me about being a member of the regulatory oversight community is the vast array of scientific areas and ethical issues encountered while overseeing research. In my previous role on a research team, I spent long days exploring in-depth issues on a small portfolio of diseases. In the IRB world, I spend long days overseeing a huge spectrum of research and thinking about ethical issues that span across the research enterprise as a whole. Transitioning into the IRB world, I learned about research history and the public perception of research and I’m intrigued by what this means for us going forward.

When I first started working with an IRB I was amazed at the variety of research that an IRB reviews; there were studies involving novel drugs, experimental surgeries, behavioral techniques, and more. Populations being researched ranged tremendously; I’ve been challenged with protecting people who may not have autonomy, who may have vulnerabilities, who have varying customs and varying backgrounds. The novel ideas were endless and I loved reading the protocols to discover the underlying problem, the hypothesis, and then watching these studies develop over time through continuing reviews. I quickly realized that my new role in the IRB was more of a calling than a job and knew I was destined for a long career in the field.

Thirteen years later and I still learn new things almost every day. I still find this job exciting. The excitement comes from new discoveries, new areas where science is growing (gene transfer, biorepositories, even the creation of a unique womb-like device CHOP is exploring for helping preterm babies not ready to be exposed to air outside the uterus). The excitement also comes from discussions within the research community—the revised Common Rule that is scheduled to go into effect soon, the discussions around how institutions are interpreting and updating their systems to accommodate those changes, new hot topics in research and the community— –the things we can learn in this field seem endless!

I’m motivated by the knowledge that the work we do today will have a great impact on our future. It will impact science, medicine, and how we understand the world around us. It will influence how future generations do research and how they understand research. By respecting and protecting subjects today we hope to increase their willingness to join us by participating in future research. We also hope to change the culture associated with research. We hope to show the public we’ve learned from mistakes and tragedies that have happened in the past. We hope to create a positive, collaborative future.

I believe PRIM&R is a driving force in spreading knowledge about what research oversight entails and about making research more accessible to the general population. By providing a unique combination of in-person meetings and networking events, webinars, and online resources, PRIM&R also serves an important role in helping those in the research community to come together, gain knowledge, and work towards common goals of compliance and protection.As a seasoned IRB administrator, I find PRIM&R to be just as critical a resource today as I did when I was first learning the complex world of research regulations 13 years ago. 

I am excited to be attending the 2018 Advancing Ethical Research Conference as a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad and to make a small contribution to this important field.

Heather Cathrall, MBE, CIP, is the Assistant Director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Institutional Review Board. She has a Master’s degree in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania and Bachelor’s degrees in Cognitive Science and Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia IRB for over 13 years and was a research coordinator prior to her IRB work.

Members of PRIM&R’s Blog Squad and other guest contributors are valued members of our community willing to share their insights. The views expressed in their posts do not necessarily reflect those of PRIM&R or its employees.

PRIM&R’s 2018 Advancing Ethical Research Conference takes place November 14-17 in San Diego, CA. Explore the agenda and register on our website.