Research staff training program completes successful first year

Matthew G. Solovey
October 29, 2020

The Staffing, Mentorship and Research Training (SMaRT) Program started a year ago with an important goal: to fill a gap in workforce development. While several programs exist for faculty, research support staff – like project managers and human research technologists - did not have similar opportunities. Penn State College of Medicine’s Office of the Vice Dean for Research funded the pilot program through the efforts of Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski and project managers Jody McCullough and Alicia Hoke. 

“Dr. Kraschnewski and her team developed the framework of a program that we were excited to pilot,” Dr. Leslie Parent, vice dean for research and graduate studies, said. “Mentorship, training and competency assessment are vital for all staff associated with our research mission. This pilot was important to assess how we can best serve our research support staff through a structured program.”

Through Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the program received supplemental National Institutes of Health grant funding in partnership with Mayo Clinic’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. This grant allowed the team to collaboratively fine-tune the program. The institute also provides administrative oversight and infrastructure. 

The SMaRT team surveyed more than 100 research staff at the College of Medicine and discovered that 75% of the respondents did not have a formal orientation. More than 85% indicated an interest in standard operating procedures, data collection methods, evaluation and data analysis and interpretation.

“The idea of SMaRT came to me when I was a junior faculty, struggling to train my new project manager as I myself was learning the complexities of the research process at the College of Medicine,” Kraschnewski said. “I am proud of what the SMaRT team has accomplished and the positive effect it continues to have on our staff to expedite the launch of new research teams.” 

The team developed an orientation for support staff based on a model implemented at Mayo Clinic. The SMaRT team further aligned orientation to competencies outlined by the Clinical and Translational Science Award joint taskforce for clinical research competency.

“This framework is a national standard that ensures research professionals exhibit competencies necessary to support effective research,” Kraschnewski explained.  The current orientation addresses 35 research competencies within seven domains which the team evaluates through the orientation. 

The research orientation is held over five days, with each day featuring topics with an overarching theme. As the week advances, attendees are taken chronologically through the research process: Idea generation and study development, study startup, study conduct and study closeout and dissemination. 

In its first year, the SMaRT team held three orientation sessions for 36 staff members representing 10 departments. As part of the program development, the team worked with human resources to determine appropriate job titles for orientation and learn of new hires. More than 20 subject matter experts from the College of Medicine, including the Institutional Review Board, Office of Research Affairs and the Clinical Trials Office, present at orientation. 

Research staff completing the orientation reported they had significant improvements in their confidence in startup, study data management, the consent process and budget management. 

“This training was an extremely valuable investment of time and helped to connect many dots for me,” one orientation participant shared with the SMaRT team. 

Said another attendee in feedback, “I feel much more empowered as a research staff member, not only because of the knowledge I have gained but also because of the connection I was able to create with others during a time when it is very easy to feel isolated.” 

To encourage networking of research support staff, the team offers regular SMaRT Connects sessions. Speakers share a research-related topic, like navigating the IRB or best practices for conducting research during a pandemic, with break-out sessions and discussion time. Seven Connects sessions were held in the first year, with an average attendance of 50. The average satisfaction score of attendees was 4.40 based on a 5-point scale. 

“Connects are so much more than a learning event or a webinar,” McCullough said. “They are an opportunity to meet other research support professionals and build your network; people who you can call on when you are working in uncharted territory or network with to grow professionally. We are happy to see not only the large attendance over the first year, but that attendees are finding the sessions valuable.”

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s involvement aligns well with its mission to the university.

“We were thrilled to help pilot this program as its outcomes and future direction are now evaluated,” Dr. Larry Sinoway, director of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute, said. “The SMaRT program complements our workforce development efforts, including our Translational Science Seminar Series and our Early-Stage Investigator Training Program (KL2), well. We look forward to seeing the program’s continued success.”

For more information on the SMaRT program and upcoming SMaRT Connects sessions, visit https://ctsi.psu.edu/research-support/smart.

Last Updated October 29, 2020