Normal is an Illusion

I recently attended a lecture titled, “Your Parameter is My Process,” in which a former professor of mine recounted her experience working on interdisciplinary research teams. She had noticed that questions she spent years investigating as a hydrologist were, in contrast, boiled down to simple equations or variables in an ecologist’s study—and vice versa. The takeaway was that based on a person’s background, training, education, and experience, s/he approaches a problem differently.

During this talk I found myself drawing parallels to my experience at PRIM&R’s 2017 IACUC Conference (IACUC17) in New Orleans. When telling other attendees that I work with wildlife research on a daily basis, I was met with a lot of “That’s so cool!” or “You’re so lucky!” While I’m not going to argue either of these points, reviewing wildlife research protocols is the norm in my position with the National Park Service (NPS) IACUC. At my institution, what might be unfamiliar to others—a researcher wanting to capture and collar elk, for example—is not so far-fetched.

Handling work like this on a regular basis, I have a pretty good idea of what kinds of questions to ask about predation, population dynamics, ecology of the system as a whole, etc. But give me a protocol about housing and manipulating rodents in a lab and I’d be out of my comfort zone. I’d have to rely on Google and consult with experts to wrap my head around the procedures.

Morticia Addams, of the iconic Addams Family, once said, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” Your experience and perspective in any given situation impacts how you approach or view a task (or protocol review). I’ve found this is certainly true of IACUCs: for example, a wildlife or teaching protocol being submitted to an IACUC that primarily reviews lab animal research might challenge members to step out of their comfort zone to understand the objectives and procedures.

Even within a single IACUC, perspectives can be wildly different. Members of the NPS IACUC come from a variety of disciplines and have experiences across taxa groups. The ecologist on our committee will often have different concerns than our veterinarian, or biologist, or layperson. Similarly our herpetology expert will not have the same questions as our carnivore or bird expert. But, having diversity of perspectives and experiences on your IACUC will (hopefully) mean a more thorough review of the protocols. Additionally, this diversity creates opportunities to learn from each other, increasing the collective knowledge of your team exponentially. I am constantly amazed by the breadth and scope of knowledge our committee has and I learn something new each and every day!

The next time you’re faced with a difficult IACUC protocol review or find yourself getting frustrated with a colleague, stop and ask yourself, “Am I the spider or the fly?” How might my experience be affecting my perspective, and where might my colleague have different/additional insight? Once you acknowledge your role in a discussion it will be easier to identify and rectify where miscommunications are occurring, and varying opinions can become an advantage, rather than an obstruction.  

Allie Petersen serves as the Administrative Assistant for the National Park Service IACUC in Fort Collins, Colorado. She holds a BS in Ecosystem Science & Sustainability from Colorado State University and loves to explore the mountains in her free time.

PRIM&R invited Petersen to contribute to Ampersand to share her specific perspective as an early-career IACUC professional. If you believe you have an interesting perspective to share about your work in research ethics, and are able to commit to writing a minimum of six posts in 2017, we’d like to hear from you. Contact Kelly Whelan for more information.