Back to School: A PRIM&R Staffer Attends Institutional Review Board (IRB) 101sm

by Megan Frame, Membership Coordinator

As a member of the PRIM&R staff, being onsite during our annual conferences constitutes some of the busiest (and most gratifying) parts of my year. Unfortunately, with so much to do, I often don’t have time to experience what so many of our attendees rave about: the incredible faculty, the thought-provoking discussions, and the diverse networking opportunities. But with the March Regional Program taking place in Boston, PRIM&R’s very own backyard, I was able to carve out some time to attend IRB 101sm, one of PRIM&R’s flagship programs. 

Since joining PRIM&R last autumn, I have been fascinated by the work of IRBs, and I was eager to learn more about the issues they face. Sitting in the classroom on the day of the course, I felt fortunate—what better way to achieve a greater understanding of research ethics than to immerse myself in a lively discussion led by two experts in the field, Elizabeth Bankert, MA, assistant provost at Dartmouth College; and Dean Gallant, assistant dean at Harvard University.

As we went around the room to introduce ourselves, I was struck by the diversity of positions that the attendees held, and I grew excited to hear more about the specific concerns that each deals with at their institutions. The morning session was spent reviewing the history and development of IRBs, and then discussion shifted to the current regulatory system. In the afternoon, we delved into case vignettes based on studies that had previously been subject to IRB review.

Instead of feeling nervous about my lack of experience with the subject matter, I felt encouraged by how much I could understand as a layman, and I was struck by how relevant the concepts and areas of concern for IRBs are to all aspects of life.

As we wrapped up for the day, one idea stuck with me. In response to a lengthy discussion over a particular case study, Elizabeth Bankert encouraged the group to think in “probabilities, not possibilities.” She urged the audience to focus on what is most likely, as opposed to considering everything that could occur. It is clear to me that adapting this type of mindset is necessary when reviewing protocols. There are undeniable risks associated with research, and it is the IRB’s job to make sure those risks are minimized and/or eliminated wherever possible. However, if we focus on the extreme possibilities, and cite every proposal as being too risky, research will halt in its tracks. So, while I do not serve on an IRB, spending the day in IRB 101sm has certainly given me a lot to think about.