By Stephanie Baringer
After long periods at the bench, many trainees discover they wish to facilitate more change in patient lives and work on the translational side of research. However, many Ph.D. level positions require experience in the clinical realm. As bench scientists, we typically don’t have that type of involvement before the time of graduation. A great way to gain this type of exposure is becoming a clinical trials coordinator.
Below is my interview with Benjamin Lieblong, a clinical trials coordinator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences working on a Phase 2 trial of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. He welcomes trainees to reach out via LinkedIn who are interested in learning more about his career experiences.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented are his own and do not reflect those of his current or past employers.
Can you please tell me about your career path?
I did my undergrad at the Centenary College of Louisiana and got a BS in biology. After that, I spent some time as a research associate at the LSU Health Sciences Center working on vascular inflammation and oxidative stress in type 1 and 2 diabetes. I then got my Ph.D. in pharmacology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS); my thesis research focused on the detection and characterization of early phase experimental radiation-induced heart disease. I went to grad school with the intention of teaching afterword, but somewhere along the way, I decided I didn’t want that either. Instead, I wanted to be a medical science liaison (MSL), which is very competitive and difficult to break into. Towards the latter half of my Ph.D., I started finding opportunities to do oral presentations and my project took a clinical turn. After graduating, I knew I didn’t want to do a post-doc, but I took one for a few months while applying to MSL jobs. I received feedback from my applications that I did not have enough clinical experience yet, so I started to do a bit of medical writing. Then a principal investigator (PI) at UAMS was looking for a clinical trial coordinator. I took the job as a stepping stone, knowing it would give me that clinical experience the MSL hiring managers were looking for. Currently, I am applying for MSL positions again.
What made you leave traditional academia? Did you always know that wasn’t the right path for you?
I knew before I started graduate school that I didn’t want to become a PI. This came from working as research associate before I started my Ph.D. The dependency on grant funding wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted. I had a friend who was the Hermione Granger of our school; she was beyond brilliant and a gifted scientist. She wrote an absolutely beautiful grant, and it was rejected. I figured that if she struggled with funding, I had no hope. Unfortunately, I felt a bit of a cold shoulder from faculty in my program for that.
What are your main responsibilities? Is a Ph. D. required?
A Ph.D. is not required, but that shouldn’t stop one from applying for this type of job. The key is to find a way to make yourself indispensable; bring value to the job. There is so much more to clinical trial work than people realize. Aside from the coordinator, there are regulatory people, those who interface with sponsors and investigators, and recruiters. My biggest responsibility is indirect recruitment of every patient. I work to find health care providers that could have patients and refer them to our study. Networking with clinics and doctors is a big part of my job. I collaborate with the regulatory office regarding correspondence with the FDA. I do a little bit of lab work to analyze a sample, about 15% in any given week. I also interact with participants for their intake and consent to participate in the study. This job is a lot of writing publications, memos, and IRB forms. Lastly, I give grand rounds talks in the department, which are kind of like student seminars in graduate school.
What does a typical week look like?
Every week is very different. Each day I typically start by seeing patients for visits, exams, and consent forms. Then later, I am on the phone a lot to set up site visits and recruit doctor’s offices. We have a lot of meetings since there are so many different offices and departments involved in a clinical trial. I am also involved in a lot of diplomacy between the research lab, regulatory office, and clinic when conflicts arise.
What kind of salary can one in this position expect?
Of course, this varies whether you are employed by an academic institution or pharmaceutical company, but it is around $70,000. The job can also be called a clinical research associate (CRA), which can include a lot of cool benefits, like a company car, retirement contributions, and ample vacation time.
What do you like most/least about your job?
What I like most is working with patients and different people every day. I knew I wanted a fast-paced environment, not sitting in a lab with the same few faces every day. I am very social, so I get bored quickly. I also find a lot of meaning in my work. It makes me feel like I am making a difference in the lives of these patients. What I like the least is the pay. As Ph.Ds., we are in school for a long time, not getting paid enough to save much. It can also be irritating to clean up after others. With clinical trials, issues cascade and snowball very quickly. Thus, inefficient communicators can make things difficult for me. I also wish it was a little more academically stimulating and that I was reading more diverse literature, rather than papers that only directly relate to our clinical trial research.
What traits or skills do you think are most beneficial for this career?
The most important thing is to be sociable; you interact with a lot of people that you need to be able to work well with. It is also very important to be nimble and adaptable. The job requires you to be prepared to put out fires, despite what you planned for the day. A common example of this is patients who no-show for an appointment after you and your team have spent hours to prepare. Things change very quickly, and you are at the center and have to change with them.
What kind of advancement opportunities does your position have?
A lot of clinical trial coordinators go on to managerial roles to supervise a team of CRAs. My predecessor left to work in the field and oversee multiple study sites. You can really diversify from this role. I personally see it as a stepping stone to gain more experience in clinical matters. Personally, I want to become an MSL, so I see this as my additional training. You can see it as a post-doc that is actually beneficial and pays more, ha ha.
What current issues and trends in the field should those considering this position know about/be aware of?
In general, clinical trial participation is very low. Of course, it is even lower now with the pandemic, but this was an issue before that started. There needs to be greater representation of diverse groups that have previously been neglected. This could be due to lack of outreach or distrust of clinical trials. I am bilingual in Spanish and English and have tried to use this skill to recruit more Hispanic participants.
Any last bit of advice for people considering this position?
It is never too early to start looking, even as a first-year student! Keep your career as a priority. Do things and build skills that will help you in the long run. Focus on your overall training even if your mentor does not. After all, this is your training and your career. Be aggressive and proactive early on.