Stay open to other perspectives: An interview with Matt Stafford

by Megan Frame, Membership Coordinator

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. Please read on to learn more about their professional experiences, how membership helps connect them to a larger community, and what goes on behind-the-scenes in their lives!

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matt Stafford, manager, Clinical Investigations at Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, MA. 

Megan Frame (MF): What skills are particularly helpful in a job like yours?
Matt Stafford (MS): I am perhaps biased because I waited tables for a few years and put myself through college by bartending, but I think experience in food service or some form of customer service is a great asset to the research ethics field. We essentially serve in a compliance function and are frequently in the position of telling people what they have to do. For many, the phrase “institutional review board (IRB)” is synonymous with “roadblock” or “delay.” But, if you achieve a reputation for customer service and collaboration, rather than one for hard-fisted governance and red tape, then the institution is in a better position compliance-wise. If you can make the experience more pleasant by providing prompt, courteous, and helpful service to investigators, they are more likely to approach you early and often, rather than after they have a problem.

MF: Have you attended  any PRIM&R events or talks that that have significantly impacted your approach to your work? If so, what were they and how did they influence you?
MS: Rebecca Skloot’s talk at the 2010 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference was amazing. I can’t stop thinking about the problem of science and health literacy in our country. It’s an issue that researchers have to face every day and something I think our profession has a duty to address. Imagine how different our world would be if there was universal understanding (or at least consensus and competency among leaders) of basic scientific truths about how our bodies work, how disease happens, and what forces affect our environment and our health.

MF: How has membership in PRIM&R’s community of research ethics professionals helped you to advance your career? 
MS: I remember my first Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference. There was a small group of us neophytes and we clung together that weekend and compared notes. I think we were all a little shy about mingling with veterans and still a little overwhelmed by our new careers. The conference was a real eye-opener. I realized both that I had so much more to learn, but also that I was not alone—there was a network of people just like me out there who were collaboratively tackling the problems we face in the IRB world. I learned so much that weekend and continue to get a lot out of each conference I attend.

MF: What advice have you found most helpful in your career?
MS: Keeping an open mind (and open ears) is key. The regulations afford a great deal of flexibility and it’s important to understand them well enough to apply them differently to varied situations. I have had a lot of great mentors in my short career, and each of them has taught me the importance of staying open to other perspectives. I struggle most with the listening part. It has always been difficult for me to listen, as I am an impatient person who likes to talk. But you get more mileage out of listening. If you don’t listen, people stop talking to you and you lose sense of what is happening. How can you be effective without knowing what’s going on?

MF: What is one thing you wish “the man on the street” knew about your work?
MS: I think it’s unfortunate that the average person, even one who may have participated in research, has no idea that IRBs exist or even a remote understanding about what we do. It takes about five minutes to explain what I do for a living to an educated person. I think we as a profession should work to make people more aware of research and the protections in place for those who participate. Knowledge is power in this case. Those who know and understand the protections are better poised to weigh the risks and benefits of participation, which makes them more likely to regard the IRB as a resource for information (as well as a place where they can share their grievances). The system of protections would function better with a well-informed public. Increased awareness might also better engage the public in the research enterprise.
I think the average PRIM&R member believes that science is important and that we contribute to progress through our work, so educating “the man on the street” is something we should work toward.

Thank you for being part of the membership community and sharing your story, Matt. We look forward to seeing you at the 2013 AER Conference in Boston this November!

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