Raise awareness to unfair treatment or situations: An interview with Eric Mah

by Joanna Cardinal, Assistant Director for Membership and IT Operations

In 2006, PRIM&R’s Board of Directors adopted a number of core values to codify the culture and priorities of our organization. One of these core values is diversity, or the priority of working “hard to value and promote the diversity of people, ideas, and opinions.” To ensure success supporting this value, in 2011, the Diversity Advisory Group (DAG) was developed. The DAG’s initial goal is to examine the issue of diversity as it pertains to PRIM&R’s membership. Specifically, the DAG will make recommendations to the staff and Board of Directors regarding strategies and/or activities designed to ensure that we are maximizing our outreach to diverse populations (including diversity of gender, age, ethnicity, race, geography, professional position, and institutional affiliation) and that PRIM&R is generally fostering an environment where different communities, professions, and ideas can flourish. In a series of posts here on Ampersand, we’ll introduce you to the members of the DAG and explain the group’s work.

Today, in our first post about the DAG, we’d like to introduce you to Eric Mah, MHS, CIP®, who serves as a chair of PRIM&R’s DAG.

Eric Mah has been a PRIM&R member for four years. He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), obtained his master’s at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and is a full-time doctoral student in education at the University of California, Davis. At the same time, he is currently the senior director of the research compliance program in the Office of Ethics and Compliance at the University of California, San Francisco, and has held leadership positions in human research protection programs at the University of California, Davis and UCLA. Eric regularly presents to audiences at national conferences as well as government advisory and legislative committees on issues dealing with human subjects protections, conflicts of interest, and research ethics.

Joanna Cardinal (JC): When and why did you join the field?
Eric Mah (EM): In college and graduate school I was drawn to philosophy, ethics, and public health. I started working in behavioral research in 1995, but I found that applied research—while unquestionably important—did not excite me like I could see it excited my co-workers. Looking for something different, I transitioned to the institutional review board (IRB) in 2007. Having had experience submitting IRB applications, and with a background in medical ethics, I hoped I could impact the IRB process in a positive way.

JC: What skills are particularly helpful in a job like yours?
EM: Problem solving and communicating effectively are important, as is budgeting and forecasting. Usually there is a limited amount of information available to base a decision on and you try your best to (1) collect all of the data you can on an issue, (2) weigh the quality of the data, and (3) make the best decision based on the first two.

JC: Tell us about one or more articles, books, or documents that have influenced your professional life.
EM: The ubiquitous What Color Is Your Parachute? (Bolles) because all of us have asked at least once in our lives, “Am I doing the right thing in my work/career?” Understanding Power (Chomsky), regardless of whether you agree with his political leanings, he talks simply and clearly about power in ways that play out in communities and governments; A Theory of Justice (Rawls) is a must-read for anyone serious about normative ethics and how to weigh right versus wrong in everyday situations, and Zen at Work (Kaye) because hectic work can just sometimes spin you out of control and you need a way to keep it together.

JC: Have there been any PRIM&R events or talks that you have attended that have significantly impacted your approach to your work?
EM: Anytime I attend a conference, if I learn one new thing that actually leads to an improvement to a practice or procedure at work, I consider it a good conference. PRIM&R tends to give more of those opportunities consistently than any other organization in this field. I credit this to PRIM&R for bringing new voices and diverse perspectives to the table.

JC: How has membership in PRIM&R’s community of research ethics professionals helped you to advance in your career?
EM: I have been tremendously fortunate in my career and PRIM&R allows open dialogue to challenge norms through questioning fellow members, speakers, and participants. Much of what IRB and institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) folks do is rooted in prima facie straightforward regulation, but there is an art and skill to the work as well because we interact with people, not simply their protocols and applications. PRIM&R is a place to explore new ideas, identify others who take similar (or different) approaches in philosophy and professional sensibility, and to build on those relationships.

JC: Why is the issue of diversity important to you?
EM: Diversity is critical to the success of any organization, and I do not limit “diversity” to ethnic or racial diversity, but that is commonly part of any diversity discussion. We need diversity in age, experience, geography, able-ism, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation…you name it. Without diversity and a community that represents a variety of opinion or ideas, organizations stagnate. Our field is no different from others in that we need innovators, people who challenge the norms, but also people who question change. Consequently, a full set of ideas and opinions are then available for broad consumption and discussion. Last but not least, it is imperative to have a supportive, nonjudgmental, and intellectually safe place to engage in this conversation. PRIM&R has tremendous potential in this regard.

JC: Why did you agree to serve on PRIM&R’s Diversity Advisory Group?
EM: I took it as an honor to contribute back to PRIM&R. I appreciate the openness from PRIM&R’s executive director Joan Rachlin, the PRIM&R staff, and the Board of Directors to the Diversity Advisory Group’s ideas. When you are part of an organization, care about its success, and are called upon to help support it, you simply must.

JC: What would you suggest to readers who are looking to strengthen the diversity of their institution, organization, or company?
EM: It starts small. Often times it can seem overwhelming. How can I change this big place when I’m just one person? You change your community by being the change you seek, to paraphrase Gandhi. Beyond treating those around you with honesty and respect, you must raise awareness to unfair treatment or situations and micro-aggressions, and give voice to those who may not have the influence, power, or confidence to defend or stand up for themselves.

JC: What advice have you found most helpful in your career?
EM: Give credit where credit is due. When I hear a great idea, I tend to blurt out: “I think it’s a great idea!” And I mean it. I probably wish I had thought of it first. Good ideas are meant to be shared and I’m likely to share the great idea with others and tell them who came up with the great idea. In competitive times or perhaps out of inexperience or insecurity, not enough people share other people’s great ideas and give credit where credit is due. It builds trust, respect, and just makes work more fun for everyone.

JC: What is something you know now that you wish someone had told you when you first entered this field?
EM: We make our own happiness. A mentor and friend, Warren Littlefield, who was president of NBC Television in the 1990s shared with me years ago, “Sometimes you need to know what you don’t like to do before you know what you do like to do.” In our field, there are many different kinds of work requiring many different kinds of skills that there is a match for everyone. Perhaps you prefer teaching or giving presentations, there’s an education position. Perhaps you like structure and order, there is auditing and post-approval monitoring positions. Like numbers? Budgeting, billing, or analytics. There are no bounds. The positions that use your strongest skills tend to be the most enjoyable.

Interested in hearing more from Eric? Join him and fellow Diversity Advisory Group member Melissa Epstein on December 6 at the 2012 AER Conference or Grand Finale 7 – The Uncomfortable Conversation: Talking about Diversity