UNM IRB Continues to Innovate After Decades of Changes

The Institutional Review Board doesn’t sound like the most cutting-edge place at the University of New Mexico. But, after many changes, IRB officials say the office is one of the most innovative of its kind.

“We do a lot of cool things,” said Human Protections Specialist Cecilia Brooke Cholka.

The office assists researchers by providing guidance on ethical conduct of research and educates faculty and graduate students about IRB regulations.

It’s taken the UNM Office of the IRB a while to get to this point.

In the late 1990’s, UNM had two IRB offices – one on main campus and one on north campus. According to Director of Human Research Protections Program Linda Petree, around 2003, the IRB offices were consolidated into one on north campus. This ended up leaving researchers on the main campus feeling neglected and left behind.

“It became a bit of the forgotten stepchild,” Petree said.

During the mid to late 2000’s, national changes began occurring – the standard biomedical model that was often used for IRB review of research no longer fit for social, behavioral and educational research, or SBER. Biomedical research standards  were often too geared towards the hard sciences for social science and humanities research, so a switch to policies and procedures that met the needs for SBER seemed most practical for many institutions. It was necessary for the IRB support office to split into two offices again, Cholka said.

“There was a little bit of an uprising, that’s what happens with faculty,” Petree said.

In July 2013, then VPR Michael Dougher made the decision to re-establish an IRB office on main campus. By September, the office was up and running. But, due to a staff shortage and the excessive workload of having to transfer files back to main campus, the office was not running very efficiently, Cholka said. There was a six-month period where she was the only one processing anything.

After about a year, Petree was hired onto the team and began trying to make the IRB office more efficient. She wanted to connect more with the people conducting the research.

Linda Petree, left, discusses a form with Cecilia Brooke Cholka. They helped revamp the UNM IRB to be more efficient and innovative. Sarah East/Advance at UNM.

“Right off the bat…we realized we needed a huge focus on education and really just spending the hours to sit with people and talk them through the process, and hopefully that would affect change,” Petree said.

The office got a full staff hired, which helped speed things along. Being appropriately-staffed is a very important part of having a smoothly run IRB office, according to Petree.

“We’ve been really, really lucky where when our staff…moves onto other positions, we’re supported on getting staff rehired,” Cholka added.

Petree made an effort to focus on staff morale as well, which helped create a sense of camaraderie in the office.

“I focused heavily on staff morale which I don’t think a lot of people focused on,” Petree said.

It made a big difference, seeing as working at the IRB can be a difficult job, Petree said. Submitting to the IRB is something many researchers have to do but they’re not excited about doing it.

“Like taxes,” Cholka added.

Another factor that helped the IRB office was getting national accreditation in 2017, according to Petree. It was a big accomplishment for the office that helped boost their credibility. Visibility has also impacted their reach, as well as their customer service attitude towards compliance.

“They (IRB members and staff) know what they’re doing,” Petree said.

The UNM IRB is located near the Greek houses on the north side of campus. The office provides research support and assistance. Sarah East/Advance at UNM.

The IRB office offers a lot of resources to help researchers on campus. They do classroom presentations, monthly workshops, one-on-one consultations, and are always willing to answer questions. Their website also offers many resources, including templates, forms and policies.

As for the future, Petree thinks the UNM Office of the IRB will continue to be innovative.

“We’re not the type of people to just keep it here…we’re all overachievers where we want to do better and provide better service.”