Document, document, document: An interview with Melissa Epstein

By Joanna Cardinal, Assistant Director for Membership and IT Operations

Today, in the second of our posts on PRIM&R’s Diversity Advisory group, we’d like to introduce you to Melissa Epstein, PhD, CIP. Read previous posts in this series here.

Melissa Epstein has been a PRIM&R member for five years. She received her Bachelors Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, has a PhD in linguistics from UCLA, and conducted her doctoral dissertation on vocal cord vibration patterns in English. She had further training as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland Dental School where she studied three-dimensional modeling of tongue motion during speech. After her postdoc, Melissa pursued a career in research administration and human subjects protection. In 2009, she obtained a certificate in bioethics from the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Bioethics. She is currently pursuing a Masters in bioethics from the Center, and works for the recently combined Montefiore and Einstein institutional review boards (IRBs).

Joanna Cardinal (JC): When and why did you join the field?
Melissa Epstein (ME): I joined the field in November 2005. I had wanted to pursue a career in research administration or science policy after my time in academia. My father, a professor at Ohio State, introduced me to the director of the university’s IRB and the compliance director at the university’s medical center. The two of them encouraged me to look at jobs in human subjects protections, and have been incredible mentors and resources ever since.

JC: What skills are particularly helpful in a job like yours?
ME: Being able to see things from both the research and the IRB side. Having been an investigator, I understand how frustrating the IRB process can be.  Also, having very good organizational skills has been important.

JC: Tell us about one or more articles, books, or documents that have influenced your professional life. Or, tell us about one or more recent articles, books, or documents that you feel are particularly relevant to the field.
ME: I have been strongly influenced by David Rothman’s Strangers at the Bedside. It tells the story of 20th century medicine and clinical research, and is an eye-opening explanation of the modern doctor-patient relationship. On a more entertaining note, this summer I read Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel, the title character, is a philospher and informal detective, and loves pondering philosophical and moral conundrums. It’s been a charming review of basic philosophy!

JC: How has membership in PRIM&R’s community of research ethics professionals helped you to advance in your career?  
ME: My PRIM&R mentor has been a tremendous resource in navigating both the regulations and my career.

JC: Why is the issue of diversity important to you?
ME: It is important both from a scientific perspective (our research results should be representative of and applicable to the population) and from an ethical perspective (the principle of justice requires that the entire population bear the burden and receive the benefits of research).

JC: Why did you agree to serve on PRIM&R’s Diversity Advisory Group?
ME: I strongly believe in giving back to my professional community. It’s a pleasure to serve.

JC:  What would you suggest to readers who are looking to strengthen the diversity of their institution, organization, or company?
ME: This is a very good question. I’m hoping we will come up with some good answers at our Grand Finale Session at the 2012 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference.

JC: What advice have you found most helpful in your career?
ME: Document, document, document. And you can never thank people enough for helping you.

JC: What is something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first entered this field? 
ME: How many paper cuts I would get when reviewing a file! And when you get beyond the paperwork, how much I would enjoy thinking deeply about the ethical issues in our field.

Interested in hearing more from Melissa? Join her and Diversity Advisory Group Chair Eric Mah on December 6 at the 2012 AER Conference for Grand Finale 7 -The Uncomfortable Conversation: Talking about Diversity.

Your thoughts on this important topic are welcome. To share your perspective on diversity with the DAG, please leave a comment or email