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The first steps to my proposal

I said this year was going to be a ride and I meant it. We’re four days into the new year and I’ve just heard back from school-PI that I’m good to submit my IRB. Since that may sound like gibberish to the non-academic and because I like to make things accessible, today I’ll explain what an IRB is, why it’s important, and why having one is somewhere between a small step and a giant leap to my PhD.

The United States of America land of the free1. Okay, the truth is never so wholesome, at least not when it comes to the good ol’ USA. A quick google search will show we were the template for the Nazi’s, we performed eugenics, and in some ways still are, and we did (are doing) horrible things to people we see as “second class” whether because of race or incarceration, we as a country have blood on our hands that we’re hesitant to wash off, much less acknowledge.

1 Some restrictions apply, see race, sex, gender, age, wealth, and other things far outside of your control for details.

It’s important to talk about that sort of thing because when I talk about research I tend to look on the good side. The people we’ve helped, the vaccines created to stop polio and even now with the COVID vaccine. Research is good, except when it’s not. Like any sword it can both defend or destroy and we’ve had a fair share of destroying using the sword of research. Tuskegee comes to mind, and even after it was deemed unethical it continued. An infamous example for sure, but there are others. Operation sea-spray is a good, if not lesser known, example.

The point I’m leading to is simple, being ethical matters and doing ethical research is important. It’s not a perfect system, but that’s the role of the Institutional Review Board, or IRB. They review proposals on research you are doing to determine the risks to the people involved and if the benefits outweigh those risks. Because we’re only human and humans have bias it’s far from the ideal system, but at least it is an attempt at making sure research is ethical and that researchers understand the risks involved with the work they propose. Every institution doing research has an IRB, my school for example has one, the hospital has its own, etc.

The process to apply is simple, or as simple as paperwork can be. You fill out several forms explaining in detail what your research is about, how you plan to conduct it, what’s involved, who is involved, and what risks are involved with the work. There are sections explicitly referencing doing research with inmates, people who cannot consent themselves, children, people who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, things of that nature. The goal is to outline (if applicable) the steps taken to ensure that the people volunteering for the study know what they are volunteering for and more importantly that they aren’t being coerced into the research.

Over the past few days I’ve filled out all the forms, including forms for recruiting people like fliers, email templates, things of that nature. The IRB needs to see all of that stuff and the process takes time, months or more depending on the level of risk involved in the research. I am working with individuals who have a spinal cord injury, so there are a few extra steps. However, since my work is all non-invasive and thus low/no risk we (school-PI and I) expect that the process will be expedited. That means once they review the protocol and the other materials I could get approval in less than a month after the IRB meets. They meet certain times of the year so we need to submit ASAP to hit the next review period.

This step is important because without IRB approval I cannot do my research. There are a few cases where you do not need IRB approval for the work, but those are far and few between. So this work doesn’t fall in that very narrow category, if I want to do research, I need approval. Without doing my research, I have no shot at my PhD, so you can see why this is important.

Yesterday I got school-PI’s approval to submit the IRB application for review. I’m hoping that this will go quick and I’ll be able to start my work soon. The deadline for submission for an early February review is coming up so today I’m officially submitting my proposal. There may be some revisions requested, edits, or additions, but now that the process is starting it should (hopefully) go quick. Once approved I can start data collection right away.

In the meantime between submission and approval I plan to write my proposal and set a date with my committee for my PhD proposal defense. I’ll probably do another post for all that entails because it is pretty involved. And while I’ve talked about the IRB and the proposal defense process in the past, I think it’s important to talk about these things as I do them. If only to have a record of things I’m doing as I am doing them.

Today is a pretty big day, even though I’m just hitting a submit button on a webpage sometimes things… click.

(yes, dumb joke, deal with it!)


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