Why its important to support student researchers, according to this Houston expert
Do you remember the feeling you had the first time sitting at the wheel of a car? Were you overcome by the feeling of excitement, anticipation, fear, or perhaps a combination of them all? For many, obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage; a symbol that you are equipped with both the knowledge and skill of how to safely operate a motor vehicle. This achievement, however, would not have been made possible without the sacrifice of devoting hours to driver’s education and training under a supervisor.
Forging new paths
By the same token, college students who have dedicated years of study in various academic fields may also be ambivalent about conducting research. They will be in dire need of an experienced researcher’s guidance as they navigate down the unfamiliar road of academic research. It is their responsibility to help shape the student’s research interests and forge new paths.
By fostering student-led research, faculty sponsors can assist students by aligning their educational experiences with their career goals. This positions them for compelling careers in academic research.
Student at the wheel
Before a student can be placed in the driver’s seat of their own research protocol, they must be fully equipped with the right tools. If not, they will begin this journey without clear direction. Such was the case of several students at an unnamed university who conducted more than minimal risk studies without IRB approval.
The students started the protocol but were advised by their faculty sponsor that IRB approval wasn’t necessary before conducting research. One of the students rode in ambulances collecting data. They published their findings and even graduated before this was brought to the attention of the university’s Office of Compliance. This is a clear case of noncompliance and the severity of this issue is similar to driving a car without a license.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is the governing entity for human subject research. Their role isn’t primarily a research review process. It ensures that human subjects are treated ethically and that their rights are protected. This brought up issues of consent, confidentiality, and potential risk to human subjects and was an example of significant non-compliance.
Federal regulations and university policy mandate IRB approval for research involving human subjects. The requisite applies to faculty, staff and students. The availability of options may create more questions than answers when submitting their first student-led research protocol.
Mapping it out
The University of Houston has taken steps to manage research compliance and optimize student success. It established an Institutional Review Board that reviews only student-led protocols. It’s unique in that very few institutions have this sort of program available. In the two years since its inception, the program has become a transformative resource for both students and their faculty advisors.
Faculty and student protocols are typically grouped together. However, the UH Student IRB Program gives them a single point of contact for IRB-related concerns and individualized support.
The UH Office of Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) has established an infrastructure to support student-led research through their pre-IRB review process. Students are encouraged to drop by to seek advice or brainstorm with a coordinator. Services, training and educational materials, such as the Faculty Sponsor Manual, are also available to support faculty sponsors.
The submission process can be pretty daunting. Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of RIO, mentioned that students are unfamilar with the IRB requirements and process. As a result, their protocols would often be sent back for significant revisions. The pre-review system helps eliminate the possibility of their protocols getting stuck in the review process.
Representatives from this office regularly interface with the UH research community. They travel to various colleges and departments across campus and guest lecture on the IRB submission process. They also talk about the ethics of conducting research with human subjects.
Students and faculty sponsors work in tandem to design and implement a research or scholarly project. Therefore, it’s imperative to cultivate an environment where student researchers feel informed and supported by their advisors and the UH community.
This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.