What a long, great trip it’s been (with apologies to Jerry Garcia)

by Joan Rachlin

What a fulfilling career I’ve had! Forty-one years ago I entered law school, planning to become a civil rights or juvenile justice lawyer. I had first considered becoming a researcher or physician, having had a longstanding fascination with medicine and science, mostly because Marie Curie had long been a hero of mine and because I adored my seventh grade biology teacher, who made every lesson come alive. The rights struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s drew me in, though, and I became part of that idealistic generation that wanted to change the world, so law school won out. 
In my second year of law school, I took a course on health law, taught by Leonard Glantz, JD, and George Annas, JD, MPH, and the issues fascinated and held me like none other. In this timing-is-everything world, one teacher, one introduction, or in this case, one course can change a life. Soon after, I began looking for a part-time, real word job, and responded to an ad from a small health law firm. Once hired, I found myself working to help launch a nascent organization, PRIM&R, whose principle mission was the creation of a multidisciplinary forum where the ethical issues raised by research could be explored and discussed. 
The rest, as they say, is history, and I gave an abridged version of my story at PRIM&R’s Advancing Ethical Research Conference on November 9, 2013, where I was privileged to receive PRIM&R’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research Ethics. I was also humbled that day when the Board of Directors announced the establishment of the Joan Rachlin Scholarship Fund. PRIM&R’s scholarship program is one of the organizational activities nearest and dearest to my heart, as it enables those who might not otherwise have the means to attend our conferences and other programs to do so. 
Another magnum opus during my time at PRIM&R has been People & Perspectives, a collection of stories from individuals in our community. Ours is an interdisciplinary field, and the People & Perspectives repository provides an opportunity to hear a diversity of voices, which helps deepen our knowledge, understanding, and empathy. Have a look and listen, and consider sharing your story!
I have been feted several times during these past four months, and although I am honored beyond measure to have been the face of an organization that matters so much to so many, I could not have accomplished anything on my own. So many people are responsible for the accomplishments of the past 40 years, beginning with PRIM&R’s spectacular staff, hardworking and visionary Board of Directors, and a wide and deep pool of volunteers, each of whom brings experience, energy, and commitment to our activities. 
As I take my leave, I find myself regularly reviewing my almost four decades with PRIM&R, and recalling the incredible people I’ve met along the way. My cup of joy and gratitude is overflowing, and so, too, is my cup of hopefulness that ethical research will some day be more than just a mission for some and an aspiration for others. I instead look forward to the time when it’s an ethical imperative for all. How to reach that elusive goal is both a puzzle and a staggering challenge, but remembering that our individual fates are bound up together helps us live more ethical lives in every dimension. As Pastor Martin Niemoller, who castigated German intellectuals for failing to stand up to Hitler, wrote:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
This powerful message is a variation on the Golden Rule, and our quest for ethical research might become less of a steep climb and more of a gentle walk if we regard and treat research subjects the way we would like our loved ones, or ourselves, to be treated. Until we reach that utopia, though, PRIM&R, under the new leadership of my successor, Elisa A. Hurley, PhD, and with our extraordinary staff, will continue to be a place where essential explorations and discussions can take place. 
As for me, I will never forget this principled and caring community, or the work each of you does daily to responsibly move the research field forward. This is important and fulfilling work, and it has given my life meaning and purpose—which is exactly what I was looking for way back when I chose to become a lawyer.
What an incredible journey I’ve had! As I embark on my next one, I wish you peace, joy, strength, humor, and many blessings on each of your paths. So long for now…never goodbye!
Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, retired today as PRIM&R’s executive director. She first began serving in this role in 1975.