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Help new IRB members find a helpful and appropriate mentor
Know what you need
Successful IRB members are developed, not born, according to an expert in research ethics.
"Much of what we need to do to succeed is not obvious, and it's not something you've learned through kindergarten," says Michael Kalichman, PhD, director of the research ethics program at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).
"It's specific to your field, the environment in which you're working, idiosyncrasies, and characteristics," he says. "And the best way to have a chance of doing well is to talk with someone who has gone through the same path that you're trying to go through, and that's what a mentor does."
Mentors have faced the same challenges and are willing to share their experiences, giving out advice based on these, he adds.
Mentors can be particularly helpful to newcomers to the IRB.
"IRB members are engaging in something that is constantly changing, and when they arrive it's going to be very new to them," Kalichman says. "Ideally, new members of an IRB would have a mentor to help them understand the limits of what they can do and to understand the things they shouldn't do."
This might help new members prevent both of the common mistakes made by newcomers: spending too much time on very specific details and losing sight of the big picture or spending so little time paying attention that they miss the important information, he adds.
Finding this balance comes with experience. And it takes someone with experience to guide newcomers in the right direction.
"Hopefully, a good mentor will advise you on how to get around the system and how to write a strong proposal that will protect the welfare and interest of human research subjects," Kalichman says.
Mentors do not need to be other members of the IRB. They can be found at human subjects research meetings or among a research institution's faculty. Kalichman offers this advice on finding and being a good mentor:
Mentors should be selected individually: "I'm not keen on the idea that mentors should be assigned," Kalichman says. "Not everybody is going to need the same mentor or the same kind of mentor."
This means each individual should find their own mentor based on their own talents and needs.
"We're not likely to find someone exactly like us and who has the same goals we have," he says. "We can find someone who speaks to a part of who we are and what we do."
IRB members also might find they are more comfortable with a mentor who faces some of the more classic challenges they might face, such as being a woman in a male-dominated academic field or being a minority or a member of another under-represented organization.
"Depending on your goals and career path, these characteristics may raise special challenges for you," Kalichman says. "So you'll want to find someone who can help you overcome those hurdles."
A person might need multiple mentors: "Your goal is to not look for one mentor for everything," Kalichman says. "You might need multiple mentors to help with different aspects of who you are."
Also, a person's first attempt at finding a good mentor might prove disappointing. The selected mentor might not connect with the new IRB member or doesn't have answers to the person's most pressing questions.
When this happens, it's time to seek another mentor, revising one's criteria. Also, a mentor does not have to be defined by the very word "mentor."
A new IRB member might simply ask an experienced IRB member or researcher for advice, Kalichman says.
"If that conversation is useful then you have someone you can come back to as long as they're willing to participate," he adds. "If you find that their ability to communicate with you does not work with you or if they're unresponsive, then you need to look elsewhere."
People who wish to be mentors need to know what their role is: "Mentors have a few different responsibilities, and one is to recognize that their role is not a supervisory role," Kalichman says. "They're not the boss of the person they're helping; they're a sounding board and provide advice."
This is an important distinction, he adds.
Also, mentors should do their best to accommodate the style of the person they're mentoring.
"Some people need a very close mentoring relationship in order to succeed and want you over the shoulder with every step of the way," Kalichman says. "Others require a minimal relationship where they call you at very key points."