The College of Medicine Office of Research recently launched phase one of its new initiative to elevate clinical research efforts across the College of Medicine, Markey Cancer Center (MCC), and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS). 

Facilitating Opportunities for Research Workforce Advancement to Retain and Recruit Dynamic Teams, or FORWARRD, is led by Andrea McCubbin, associate dean for research administration.   

To oversee FORWARRD’s progress, McCubbin has assembled a diverse and robust advisory group, co-led by Bill Verble, director of Provost HR Business Partners, with members from research, human resources, communications, MCC, and CCTS.

Though FORWARRD is just getting started, the desire to build community among clinical research professionals stretches back several years. Anna Rockich, PharmD, a longtime clinical research manager in the department of surgery, noticed the need for increased communication between clinical research staff across departments and organized a series of recurring meetings for clinical research professionals to discuss concerns and share successes. 

As the Office of Research expanded, this small group of research professionals became the foundation of the College of Medicine’s Research Professionals Network (RPN), which now boasts over 100 members from the college, Markey Cancer Center (MCC), and the Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS). 

Hearing concerns about understaffing, pay equity, and the lack of consistency between similarly titled positions during RPN meetings, McCubbin did what any researcher would do— she turned to the literature for solutions. 

Several research-intensive academic medical centers quickly emerged when exploring the literature around research professional workforce development and engagement, including Duke University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). McCubbin began meeting with members at both institutions and credits their willingness to share knowledge and resources as a key factor in establishing FORWARRD. 

FORWARRD centers around the framework established by the Joint Task Force (JTF) for Clinical Trial Competency, which represents investigators, research professionals, educators, and clinicians across the nation. The JTF Core Competency framework was created to align researchers worldwide around a single, comprehensive set of competencies for the profession. It includes eight critical competency domains, such as ethical and participant safety considerations, clinical study operations, and leadership and professionalism, to name a few.

“This initiative is an opportunity to establish a structure for clinical research professionals that is deeply rooted in nationally accepted competencies,” said Verble. “Once established, the framework will provide employees with a clear path for professional growth and development, as well as give principal investigators (PIs) clarity around expectations when staffing their research teams.” 

Still in its early phases, FORWARRD utilizes dedicated workstreams to review clinical research position titles and job descriptions, ensuring they align with the responsibilities and tasks staff are asked to perform.  The workstreams are comprised of clinical research professionals actively working in the positions being reviewed, which ensures each review is conducted by the people who know the job best. A future phase of FORWARRD will include the evaluation of research professional job descriptions among the College’s basic science departments as well.

Jeri Reynolds, a research nurse manager within Markey Cancer Center, serves on the FORWARRD advisory group and clinical research nurse workstream. Involved with clinical research at the University since 1987, Reynolds’ expertise is invaluable in revising job descriptions to more accurately reflect the work being done by clinical research staff.   

“Requirements of our different levels of clinical research nurses vary across departments. Pay is inconsistent, and some departments require certification while others don’t,” expressed Reynolds, “but this effort will increase consistency across departments, make things more equitable, and ultimately, establish a career path that our research nurses can follow.” 

According to McCubbin, retaining highly qualified staff is a major goal of FORWARRD. “We know that PIs are integral in securing research funding, but to see those PIs turn around and say ‘the staff who's conducting the research in my lab or clinic, or alongside me, is just as integral to that process’, has been such a motivating force for this work,” she said. 

Furthermore, McCubbin sees FORWARRD as a tangible example of the University's overarching strategic plan, UK PURPOSE, because it aligns with principle two: taking care of our people. Though some staff may feel disconnected from larger discussions of the strategic plan and its metrics, McCubbin thinks this initiative demonstrates the College’s effort to better express appreciation for and recognize the value of its clinical research teams.

 “We are already hearing positive feedback from our research professionals who finally feel like they’re being heard and have a place to voice their concerns,” said McCubbin. “We’re bringing people to the table to have these conversations, to meet one another, and to help break down silos that commonly exist among research teams at large academic healthcare systems.” 

“I hope individuals will see opportunities, and what they need to do to take up those opportunities, in terms of developing their skills and competencies for advancement,” said Verble, when asked about the anticipated impact of FORWARRD. “The growth of our research activities as an enterprise is a big institutional goal and we have a lot of wonderful PIs that are driving that, but the projects they want to put in place require skilled and experienced clinical research professionals to be successful.”

McCubbin and Verble, alongside colleagues from Duke, UAB, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the University of Cincinnati, presented on adopting a clinical research professional workforce competency-based framework at the 2023 Association for Clinical and Translational Science (ACTS) annual conference. A related manuscript authored by this group has also been accepted for publication in the spring of 2024. 

In addition to supporting the important daily work of our research professionals and creating a clear pathway for professional growth in the field of research, McCubbin’s long-term goal for FORWARRD is its replicability. She hopes that by leading FORWARRD and sharing its successes and challenges through scholarship, other institutions can look to the University of Kentucky not only as the state’s flagship land grant institution, but as a leader in clinical research advancement and workforce development.