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The Clinical Research Profession: Getting Hired as a CRA

with guest Tommy Lampley

Christine Senn:

I want to welcome my longtime friend Tommy Lampley, who is a very experienced CRA in oncology. Today he's going to teach people what a CRA is and some paths to get into that job. So, for those of you looking for this job, you’ll want to watch.

Tommy, you and I worked together many years ago, and that relationship started because you had the goal of becoming a CRA. First, can you please describe for people what a CRA does and what your path was to get here today? You’re a well-respected, long-term CRA specializing in oncology trials, and I think it's been a fascinating path.

Tommy Lampley:

Absolutely. If I may, I'd just like to thank you all these years later for that opportunity, because it was critical in the path and the knowledge-gathering process of getting hired as a Clinical Research Associate. What's a CRA, a Clinical Research Associate? This is an individual that I would describe as the liaison between a sponsor and a research site before, during and after the process of conducting a clinical research study. As the process of closeout occurs, they work with the sponsor to ensure patient safety is following protocol at the research site.

Christine Senn:

That's perfect. So what was your path like to get there?

Tommy Lampley:

I would consider my path to be a little different than the more traditional path. I've heard, as I've traveled through the years now as a CRA going on different monitoring visits and meeting CRAs that have come from different industries, everyone's path is a little different. Mine started with me at an early age knowing I wanted to be in medicine in some respect. At one point, I thought I wanted to be a physician, and went through the path of being pre-med in college. I was a biology major, until I had a chance to work in a research lab. From there, I just really fell in love with the process of getting a drug to market, helping to contribute to a drug. It's not an intuitive process in terms of working in bench research as an undergrad to what comes next after that.

I had a chance to do a Master's degree in biotechnology at Georgetown University. There I really learned a lot of the nuances of what it takes to get a drug to market. Part of that is after bench research, the process of clinical development for potential candidates. I had a class called the Financial Matrix of Biotechnology, and it broke down the different aspects or the different skill sets involved in the drug development process. I learned about the Clinical Research Coordinator and the Clinical Research Associate. The graduate student version of myself really didn't know the difference. I can recall after graduate school applying to a bunch of CRA positions and applying to a bunch of CRC positions.

If you don't have any experience, it's very difficult to get hired. I was unsuccessful for months until I had an opportunity to work at – or intern at – a research site called Southeast Regional Research Group. From there, I had an opportunity to learn what is really going on, on the ground, in a research study. It's one thing to read about it, and have some textbook learning and quizzes on the processes, but it's another thing to have a chance to walk into a research site, liaise with study coordinators, liaise with principal investigators, and see what it is that's going on day-to-day. My internship really exposed me to the process of data entry, the process of subject visits, the process of CRAs coming to the research site, and what a CRA did once they came there.

Through that internship opportunity, I had a chance to meet several CRAs. I can admit to busting in on their lunch breaks and being inquisitive, asking how they got started and what they did. What I learned was which companies to start applying to, and how to format my resume with my newfound experience. I also learned more about what other industries CRAs came from. I found out you don't have many people going straight from graduate school like I did. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to do that. You see a lot of individuals who were previous study coordinators and. I'll admit, I think study coordination is the skillset that gives you the best tools, the best eyes, and the best experiences to be an excellent CRA just coming in.

I think I had a steep learning curve. Fortunately, I had some good training to become a competent CRA, but study coordinators – having that experience, having interacted with CRAs, having seen patients, enter data – they have a different level of knowledge with reference to the CRA skillset. Another arena I've seen individuals come from is being RNs (registered nurses). They have a different skill set, particularly in oncology, that enables them to be intuitive to what you're doing in terms of being able to read charts, understanding what certain medications are, and understanding certain events that may or may not be related. Even though I didn't have either of those previous backgrounds, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to get to the right place, and ultimately become a clinical research associate.

Christine Senn:

You may have already answered my question because you came from a biology and biotech background, and of course, not everyone's going to have that. And then you went into details like a nursing background and a study coordinator background. I do think it would be easier and probably more advantageous if a person started as a coordinator, in most cases. You just happen to be very intelligent, have great common sense, are great at learning, and interned at the best place ever. (No one even knows that company anymore, as it changed names.) You did go through that-- I'm going to ask you a little bit about internships soon-- but without that, what skill sets, in general, do you think people are looking for in a CRA?

Tommy Lampley:

There is a baseline of skill sets that one really does need to have. I think my grad school background and having been well-versed in recent Microsoft Office technologies helped me. I think that is a baseline skillset. Being functional in Excel, functional in Word, functional in Outlook, which is the email exchange a lot of companies use. Beyond that, being organized in your functionality is important. For example, what's the use of having all these tools if you don't know how to interact with them in an organized way? Being able to understand your commitments from multiple levels is important because as a CRA, as I mentioned, you're the liaison between the sponsor and the study site.

That means you have individuals that you're interacting with in multiple areas from multiple companies. What comes along with that are emails from different directions depending on how many protocols you're on, and they could come at a very high frequency. You could have multiple meetings from multiple studies, and even multiple clients if you work with a large CRO. You could be working for one doing a GI study, a breast cancer study on another, which are two unrelated indications. You'd have to figure out how to keep everything straight and understand the nuances and differences between those two protocols. What PK time point do you have for this protocol versus the next? Being motivated to be organized is a pretty critical skill set to have.

Christine Senn:

I love that you said that, and it's not something I've thought about in doing this series at all. I cannot tell you how many times my training with a person – a Coordinator or a CRA – has been teaching them how to create categories in Outlook, how to have a follow-up system, whatever it is, to have organizational skills. I mean, if a person doesn't like email and sorting email and responding to email, it's not the right business for them.

Tommy Lampley:

Yes, absolutely. You're in for a rough day-to-day because that's a very important skill!


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