Every Day is a New Challenge: An Interview with Sandy Whittaker

By Megan Frame, membership manager

Welcome to another installment of our featured member interviews where we will continue to introduce you to more of our members—individuals who work to advance ethical research on a daily basis. May is Member Appreciation Month at PRIM&R, and we will be featuring a new member interview every week! Please read on to learn more about Sandy Whittaker, IRB coordinator at Mercy Health Springfield in Springfield, MO. 

Megan Frame (MF): When and why did you join the field?
Sandy Whittaker (SW): I was asked to fill in for a co-worker who was a research coordinator while she was on maternity leave and was instantly hooked. In total, I have been involved in medical research for 11 years; 1.5 years as a research coordinator and 9.5 years as an IRB coordinator. I love all the different aspects of research and the thought of helping find new treatments. Plus, every day is a new challenge; you never get bored.

MF: What is one tool you use every day that you could not do your job without?
SW: Without a doubt, I could not do my job without the OHRP Human Subject Regulations Decision Charts. My health system is working to increase our physician initiated research program, so I use it a lot in helping them determine what documents they need to submit and the level of review that is necessary.

MF: What is one thing you wish the general public knew about human subjects research?
SW: Regardless of the disease being studied, each clinical research protocol represents a group of people who are trying to understand and improve the outcomes for people with a particular health condition, and it is our duty to make sure the subjects enrolled in a study receive the respect and protection they deserve.

MF: What is something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first entered this field? Or, what is an example(s) of a lesson you had to learn the hard way?
SW: When I started, I tried to learn everything all at once, and I realized all I was doing was stressing myself out. The first thing I tell someone entering the research world is if someone tells you they know everything about research, don’t believe him or her. There’s so much to learn! Also, something frequently comes up that forces us to take a step back and determine the proper way to handle a situation. The best approach is to take each situation as it comes, because each one will be a little different than the previous situation.

MF: What changes in the research ethics and oversight fields most concern you? What changes are you encouraged by?
SW: Genetic research is both my largest concern and my biggest encouragement. It is exciting to think how far we have come to create a personal treatment for cancer patients, yet with each discovery it also creates another privacy issue that must be considered.

MF: What motivates you to maintain your commitment to advancing ethical research?
SW: Almost everyone I know has been touched by a medical issue, whether it is high blood pressure or cancer. Watching them go through chemotherapy, radiation, or having to try multiple treatments before finding one that works has made my commitment to finding cures and earlier diagnoses even stronger. The only way to make those advances mainstream is to have solid and clean data to back them.

MF: How has membership in PRIM&R’s community of research ethics professionals helped you to advance in your career or do your job better? 
SW: While research touches every aspect of healthcare, the research community is a small group of people in comparison, and even if there are multiple institutions in your area, you still have a limited number of people with whom to discuss IRB-related issues. Being able to review items in the Workplace Tools section of the Knowledge Center or ask questions in the IRB Forum have been invaluable resources.

Thank you for being part of the membership community, Sandy! Our community wouldn’t be as strong without the support of members like you. 

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a member, please visit our website today.