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The Clinical Research Profession: Special Workforce Topics for Academic Medical Centers

Christine Senn: 

Today, I am excited to welcome back Denise Snyder from Duke University Medical Center to discuss fascinating initiatives she led with clinical trial competencies across the university healthcare system. 

Denise, you have creative ideas for attracting people to clinical research? Let's hear them. 


Denise Snyder: 

Absolutely. One of the key points I've been emphasizing for staff and teams is the importance of transferable skills. Many units struggle to find candidates with clinical research experience, which is not reflected in our job queues. We receive numerous applications from individuals like clinical research coordinators (CRCs) who lack clinic experience or background. It's a common challenge, but one we aim to address through training and development. I see significant potential in transferable skills across various professions, not just nursing. 


For instance, a few years ago, a faculty member referred a PhD-trained basic science scientist to me. Despite managing a lab for over a decade, she expressed interest in transitioning to clinical research. We explored various career opportunities, including the role of a research program leader. However, I advised her to start as a clinical research coordinator to gain essential experience. She flourished in the role and eventually transitioned to a project management role in population health, showcasing the value of transferable skills. 


This experience highlighted the importance of trust and career progression. After working as a CRC, she gained insight into patient interaction, regulatory needs, and protocol design, which paved the way for her career advancement. Her journey exemplifies the potential for growth and success in clinical research, even for those without prior experience. 


One example that comes to mind directly impacted our team. Duke University had a program called the Duke Talent Identification Program (TIP), which aimed to involve middle and high school students. Sadly, this program was halted during the pandemic. When I learned about it through Duke Today, our university newsletter, I reached out to the recruitment office. Given our ongoing needs in clinical research and the changes brought on by the pandemic, I felt we could offer assistance. We presented our clinical research opportunities to TIP employees, leading to several inquiries and one successful application for a CRC position. This individual, equipped with project management skills from their TIP role, transitioned to a frontline position in our COVID-focused research clinic before advancing to an RPL role overseeing a community engagement research project. 


We've had numerous success stories like these, demonstrating that clinical research isn't exclusive to nursing backgrounds. Professionals from various disciplines can transition into this field with patience, learning, and support. It's crucial for managers and recruiters to invest in individuals for the long term, recognizing that success in clinical research often requires hands-on experience and a deep understanding of the patient's perspective. 


Christine Senn: 

You've highlighted some key insights that hadn't crossed my mind before. Starting as a clinical research coordinator (CRC), regardless of one's ultimate career goals, offers invaluable experience. Reflecting on my time as a site operations manager, we often began new hires as coordinators to provide comprehensive training. However, your intentional approach underscores the importance of this foundational role in understanding the intricacies of clinical research. Working directly with patients or participants, whether in person or virtually, offers a unique perspective that's essential for success in this field. As CRCs navigate daily challenges and prioritize tasks, they gain firsthand insight into the rewards and complexities of clinical research. 


Denise Snyder: 

Working as a CRC involves a lot of juggling, but the most crucial aspect you miss if you've never been one is the human connection. Participants in our studies are individuals first, generously giving their time to contribute to something larger than themselves. Witnessing their altruism, their willingness to give back, and the hope that research offers is incredibly powerful. It's what grounds me, even when making decisions at an institutional level or related to our infrastructure or staff. I often reminisce about my early days working directly with patients and participants, cherishing those profound experiences. It's hard to fathom not having that firsthand understanding when transitioning to roles like monitoring or tech, where you're distanced from the human aspect. 


Even if you don't directly interact with patients or participants, there are still opportunities to learn from those who do. Engaging with frontline staff and seeking their insights on patient experiences is invaluable. Embracing patient-centricity in research means involving the community in protocol development and research questions, rather than dictating from the top down. This shift toward inclusivity and collaboration is essential for evolving the research landscape. 


Christine Senn: 

Many site managers express dissatisfaction with the disconnect between protocols and the reality of daily operations. Technical challenges and cumbersome processes not only strain site staff but also impact patient care. Recognizing the pivotal role of clinical research coordinators (CRCs), it's surprising they're not consulted more frequently by CROs, sponsors, and tech companies to streamline operations. Their firsthand experience could offer invaluable insights into simplifying procedures and enhancing efficiency. 


My journey into clinical research began in academia, where I quickly realized the disparity between theory and practice. It wasn't until I immersed myself in clinical settings that I grasped the practical challenges clinicians face. This firsthand experience reshaped my perspective and highlighted the importance of hands-on engagement in clinical research. That's why I believe everyone involved in research should spend time in clinical settings—it's transformative. Now, tell us, what excites you the most about clinical research? 


Denise Snyder: 

One thing I always emphasize is how research transforms care. Without it, we wouldn't have new therapies or improvements in treatment delivery. Let me share a personal example: when my daughter was diagnosed with type one diabetes at age 10, it was life-changing for our family. As a parent and a dietician, navigating the challenges was daunting. It's not just about knowing what to do; it's about understanding all the available options. Since then, advancements in technology, like continuous glucose monitors, have been game-changers. These innovations make managing the disease easier, although challenges persist. Every decision matters for someone with type one diabetes, from food choices to exercise and monitoring blood sugar levels. Research drives these advancements, offering hope for better outcomes. 


Regardless of your role in the clinical research ecosystem, you're contributing to changing care. Each day brings something new—whether it's a patient, a protocol, an idea, or a workflow—keeping us engaged and excited. Research fosters curiosity, propelling us to find better ways to serve our community. While my focus has shifted to overseeing research processes, my passion for improvement remains. I'm committed to enhancing Duke's research infrastructure, making it more agile and efficient. We're always learning and striving to do better because curiosity drives progress. 


Christine Senn: 

Thank you for sharing your insights, Denise. It's been a pleasure having you. 


Denise Snyder: 

You're welcome! It's been a great conversation. Thank you for having me. Looking forward to what's next! 

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