New administrator will buttress ethics board

Erin Starzyk has been hired as an administrator for the Institutional Review Board, a government program that monitors ethics in research. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

Created by the federal government to ensure that all research involving human subjects be ethically principled, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) has recently hired an administrator, Erin Starzyk, to be solely dedicated to the board and its work after years of having other faculty and staff take on the job as an extra responsibility.

According to IRB faculty chair and political science professor Rick Valelly, the boards were put in place in the 1970s by the federal government in all the institutions that receive federal funding. They were established after a notorious incident of research abuse, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which researchers purposely infected a group of unknowing men with a strand of syphilis.

The board at the college therefore ensures that all research being conducted by students and faculty alike be ethical.

“The board ensures that some attention is given in the research design to getting informed consent and in making sure that data is anonymized and that any results of information collected can’t harm anybody in any way … there are procedures that researchers need to adopt in order to make data and data collection safe,” Valelly said.

The IRB requires that every person on campus doing research with human subjects turn in a number of forms detailing the kind of information that they will be getting and how this information will be obtained.

According to new administrator Starzyk, depending on the sensitivity of the topic, the group being subject to research and the risk involved in the data collection process, the project may require different levels of review from the board.

While some low-risk research projects only require one person’s review and approval, others require that the full board meet to discuss and approve the proposal. The full board is composed of eight different members of the faculty, including Starzyk and Valelly.

Starzyk previously worked as a researcher while earning her graduate and doctorate degrees. She has done research in places like Boston, Chicago and Belize, among others.

“I’ve had a lot of experience working with a lot of IRBs because most of my career has been focused around research,” she said.

Here since September of last year, Starzyk is the first person hired by the college as an administrator. In previous years, the job was tacked on to other professors’ responsibilities, but as the research continues to grow, the college wanted to be professional in complying with federal guidelines.

“The college realized that they needed someone here that was solely dedicated to the IRB … They wanted to develop a position in which they could have a ‘expert’ on campus,” Starzyk said.

Valelly thinks that creating a new position dedicated to the IRB has increased the legitimacy of the board.

“Swarthmore’s review board has been evolving very quickly… This year there was a big jump in how professionalized it has become,” he said.

Starzyk will mainly be examining the federal regulations in their entirety and reviewing applications. The full-board, however, had a meeting on Monday to go over the different forms in attempts to simplify them and make them as user-friendly and intelligible as possible.

“Some people find the review process burdensome because it is a lot of work but others find that it is very helpful to them, and gets them thinking about things they hadn’t thought about. It gets them thinking about the ethics of research in a precise, mechanic and logistic way,” Valelly said.
Starzyk’s office is located in Parrish 12.

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