The Joy of Networking

by Rebecca S. Ohnemus, MAA, CRA, research officer at University of the Incarnate Word

When it’s your first time attending a professional conference, things can feel… well… overwhelming. There are few (if any) familiar faces. Everyone else seems to know where they are going, while there you are: walking up the wrong staircase—bewildered—and getting frowns from the convention center staff.
The first friends I made at the PRIM&R 2014 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference were during the Common Ground Networking Lunch. While wandering around, trying to find a seat, I ended up taking an empty spot at a table for those at governmental agencies. The people already seated were warm, welcoming, and immediately waved off my concern that I didn’t work at a similar institution.
I knew my seating choice was fate when the woman to my right peeked at my badge and said, “San Antonio! I’m from San Antonio, too!” We chatted for a while, talked about the types of projects that were common at our institutions, the challenges of implementing new systems, and (of course) how much warmer the weather was in Texas.
When we said our goodbyes, we promised to keep in touch, continue to share our experiences, and help build a collaborative relationship between our institutions. Little did we know, within two months we would be working together.
This started, as most of my adventures do, with a panicked phone call from an investigator: “Rebecca, what’s a Federalwide Assurance? Do we have one of those? What about an IRB number? Or do we just have an IRB, but not a number?”
After answering the questions, I asked, “So, whatcha working on?”
Anyone who has ever asked that question braces for a few different possibilities, ranging from a quick reply to being invited to work on the project. This was somewhere in between.
I was added to an email string, received a few messages from the other parties involved, and had one of those moments where your eyes narrow, you turn your head to the side, and think, “Wait a minute, I know you!”
I’m sure you have all experienced the difference between working with someone and working with someone you already know, even if you only know the person casually. The tiny roots of a relationship are already in place, allowing conversations to move more quickly, existing trust to be built upon, and a sense that the person you’re working with isn’t just another person – they’re familiar.
Once paperwork was signed on our end, there wasn’t a thought of mailing it:
“Would you like for me to bring it over? It would be great to see you again and catch up for a moment.
“Oh, of course! I can show you around and introduce you to everyone here. They will be glad to meet you.”
The short delivery visit ended with a tour of the facility and introductions to IRB administrators, IACUC administrators, internal auditors, and a few researchers who were visiting. “This is Rebecca, she’s at Incarnate Word,” always followed by, “we were at the PRIM&R AER Conference together.”
Now, I wouldn’t say the kindnesses I was shown and ease of working together we felt were due exclusively to meeting at AER14, but it would be foolish to discount the value of having people who were already professionally acquainted working on the project. The way I was introduced—”we were at the PRIM&R AER Conference together”—seemed to convey a larger sense of mutual trust in our working relationship. So while it was just luck that I chose the “wrong” table that day at lunch, it certainly turned into a strong professional connection that benefited my researcher, my institution, and me.