Maintaining Protections for Research Participants in a Rapidly Changing Environment: An Interview with Katherine Lerner

By Nora Murphy, membership assistant

Welcome to another installment of our featured member interviews where we introduce you to our members—individuals who work to advance ethical research on a daily basis. During May, Member Appreciation Month at PRIM&R, we feature a new member interview every week! 
Please read on to learn more about Katherine Lerner, JD, CIP, associate director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences IRB at the University of Chicago, and planning committee member for PRIM&R’s 2015 Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research Conference.
Nora Murphy (NM): When and why did you join the field?
Katherine Lerner (KL): IRB work is my third career. Prior to entering the IRB world, I was a budget and policy analyst with state and local governments, and I then went to law school and was a lawyer with the federal government for over five years. When my kids were very young and I was home pretty much full-time, I became a community member on the IRB at Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Lurie Children’s Hospital) in Chicago and spent over three years in that role. I then served as a vice chair of that IRB for a couple of years, at which point, looking to take on more full-time type of work, I became IRB manager for the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Working as the IRB manager for NORC was a great introduction to social science IRB work—and it’s a one-person IRB office, which was also a big change. I learned a huge amount quickly about social science IRB review and managing all aspects of an IRB office. In January 2014, I became associate director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences IRB at University of Chicago.
NM: What is one tool you use every day without which you could not do your job?
It is an especially exciting time to be involved in social science IRB work. Social science research is being transformed by the ease of access to data on large numbers of people via the internet/social media, as well as by the use of mobile devices and other technologies. It makes our work endlessly interesting and challenging. Being able to discuss these challenges with colleagues is enormously helpful. I turn to the IRB Forum frequently when we have questions that we want to run by colleagues. When I was a one-person IRB office, the IRB Forum was an essential way for me to be able to reach out to colleagues and bounce things off of them, and it continues to be a tremendous source of information and advice to which I often turn. Additionally, sage advice from Elizabeth Buchanan, endowed chair in ethics and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, regarding review of research using internet/social media is incredibly helpful as well. I have attended Advancing Ethical Research Conference (AER) sessions taught by Elizabeth and also make sure to sign up for any webinars that she does on research using internet/social media.
NM: What motivates you to maintain your commitment to advancing ethical research?
KL: Social science IRBs are on the front lines of dealing with challenges related to the ease of accessing information about individuals without their knowledge and the ability to re-identify individuals from supposedly anonymous datasets. It’s important work maintaining protections for research participants in this rapidly changing environment, and I take pride and pleasure in this work day in and day out.
NM: What PRIM&R events or talks have made a significant impact on your approach to your work? 
KL: Although many PRIM&R events stand out in my memory, I was very affected by the keynote speech that Elyn Saks gave at the 2012 AER Conference. It was a tremendously moving speech about the struggles of living with mental illness and the assumptions that others make about people with mental illness, and the power of her words and experience have stuck with me ever since.
Thank you for being part of the membership community, Katherine! 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.