SRU’s Institutional Review Board sees broad impact of research
Research at Slippery Rock University with human participants, like the Exercise Science Department’s study of inter-arm blood pressure difference during exercise, must first meet approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board.
Jan. 5, 2018
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Student-faculty research is at the heart of engaged learning at Slippery Rock University, providing transformational experiences for both parties through high-impact practices. To insure that research projects follow appropriate protocols and legal requirements, they must go through a series of reviews prior to implementation. At SRU, those reviews are the responsibility of the Institutional Review Board.
Ann Romanczyk, assistant professor psychology who has served on the IRB the last 20 years, the last three as chair, led a board that reviewed more than 350 protocols in 2017.
"It's a wonderful experience just to see all the kinds of research that is going on here at SRU," Romanczyk said. "It's amazing to see the level of creativity and the degree to which most everyone involves students in their research, which is an excellent source of training and teaching. Students come away with a more vibrant view of research."
More than 180 students presented research at the 2017 Student Research Symposium and there were several faculty-led research projects conducted throughout the year, everything from prisoner intervention to the effectiveness of teaching techniques. The IRB gets involved when there's research taking place with human participants, ranging from anonymous survey completion to elaborate health assessments, ensuring that SRU is compliant with federal and state regulations and University policies.
"Our goal is to facilitate research; we're not here to veto it," Romanczyk said. "We suggest modifications (of submitted protocols) that bring research up to federal code. The research done here at the University is stronger because of the training we require of researchers and the board coming up with modifications that help all researchers get to the point where they can prove and run their research."
According to Nancy Cruikshank, director of grants, research and sponsored programs and an ex-officio IRB board member, there are three levels of review: exempt, expedited and full board.
Exempt reviews are fulfilled in two to five business days by the IRB chair and don't have risks to human participants, such as the completion of anonymous surveys. Expedited reviews are approved by three board members within two to three weeks, and they involve minimal risk to the participants but may involve pre- and post-testing and a subject's identity could be known by the researcher. A full board review takes place at the IRB's monthly meeting with members reaching a quorum for protocols that involve vulnerable participants such as children or prisoners.
An example of a full board review was the social work department's research conducted at the State Correctional Institute in Mercer with animal-assisted intervention to treat prisoners who have anxiety and stress-related disorders.
"All the members of IRB, they really do a great service for the University and the community at-large because they are making sure we are doing things right," said Yvonne Eaton-Stull, assistant professor of social work, who along with two students led the intervention project. "They were wonderful at giving me feedback and the official approval in time that we didn't have to postpone anything."
In addition to some slight modifications and clarifications, like Eaton-Stull confirming that she would be present with the students during all visits to the prison, the animal-assistant invention project also required separate approval from SRU's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which functions similarly to the IRB but for animal participants.
An example of an expedited review was one done recently for the exercise science department's study of inter-arm blood pressure difference during exercise, which saw more than 60 participants visit SRU twice to have their blood pressure measured at rest and while exercising on a stationary bicycle. For IRB compliance, participants were provided detailed disclosures and informed consent forms so they knew what to expect.
IRB members go through extensive training and researchers complete less rigorous training, to protect the dignity and safety of the participants, but without IRB approval there could be consequences for non-compliance.
"Not only are we trying to protect the human participants, but we are protecting the University from potential harm, too," said Cruikshank, noting that the federal agency that monitors research, the Office for Human Research Protections, could remove an institution's funding for violations and, in repeated, extreme circumstances, the prosecution of school administrators.
Additionally, IRB approval is often a prerequisite for faculty and students to present their research at conferences and to get published in peer-reviewed journals.
"We see our job as safeguarding the research, the students, the institution and everyone's reputation," said Romanczyk, who leads the 13-member board that consists of volunteers appointed by the Provost's Office from several departments with varied expertise, as well as a community member not affiliated with SRU. "Being appointed to the board is not a trivial commitment in time, effort and training and I've always been proud that the board has always treated that very seriously."
Romanczyk anticipates the volume of research protocols will increase in the coming years as SRU continues to expand its programs, including the first students completing their research dissertations for the doctoral program in special education and the doctoral program in occupational therapy that will launch in June 2018.
Reflecting on her last two decades on the board, Romanczyk said she continues to be impressed with the protocols from the College of Education, such as student teachers who collect data to improve ways to engage students. For example, SRU students have conducted action research to determine if manipulatives used by children helps them learn math skills.
"They are doing very practical, hands-on research with their students and I have been blown away with some of the creativity," Romanczyk said. "There is a culture of creativity at the University and students have taken it and run with it."
But before anyone runs with research, the IRB is here to make sure they are getting off on the right foot.
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