Introducing the AER16 Blog Squad: Brenda Ruotolo

It’s mid-September, leaves are just starting to fall as daily weather capriciously vacillates between oppressive and refreshing, and I am making flight arrangements for the 2016 Advancing Ethical Research Conference (AER16).  It brings to mind that I have been attending PRIM&R conferences for 20 years, starting back when I was a member of its sister organization at the time, ARENA.  I was new to the research world then, administering the IACUC at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and assisting with the IRB. I left each conference with my head spinning, snippets of all the things I knew I had to learn whirling around inside. The weeks after each conference were filled with to-do lists for changing forms, revising policies, reading up on topics that the conference had introduced, and sharing new information with colleagues, administration, IRB members, and researchers. 

Fortunately for me, my employers, through career transitions to Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and then Columbia University in the City of New York, have consistently supported conference attendance, which has unfailingly promoted my growth as a professional in the IRB world.  I’ve served as a faculty member for conferences numerous times, and have found the experience of pulling together presentations with other IRB professionals to be rewarding in and of itself. My head still spins sometimes after the conference, but it’s no longer from being overwhelmed with the scope of all the things I didn’t know.  Rather, my brain and laptop are full of ideas for how to increase efficiency through better understanding of the regulations (courtesy of a presenter’s perspective or a discussion with a peer from another institution), clarifications of emergent trends or requirements, and advice from federal representatives or new acquaintances for how to deal with a complex situation. I still go home with long to-do lists.

In my current position as executive director of the Human Research Protection Office at Columbia, I have responsibility for one of the largest academic IRB operations in the country, with approximately 6000 active protocols, a staff of 29 and seven IRBs. I advocate continually for budget support to send staff members to the AER Conference each year, on the justification that the educational and networking opportunities it provides are invaluable to our program. This becomes harder each year, but I persist because of the value that it has for attendees’ contributions to the regulatory world of promoting ethical research, and their own professional development.

My goals for the conference this year are to focus on topics related to precision medicine initiatives, which loom large for Columbia, to catch up on relationships forged in other conferences while creating new ones, and to spend some quality downtime with my own staff members.  On that last note, I can personally say that a staff outing that involves a nice dinner (or maybe a group bull riding experience!) is an excellent way of getting to know them better on a personal level. Anaheim, and wonderfully warm weather in November, will be an added bonus for those of us from the Northeast!