Research Administrators are Behind-the-Scenes Stars

‘Unsung heroes’ support research, including Nobel Prize winners
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Jan 15, 2016

For years, Juliette Lee knew Dr. Paul Modrich as a very meticulous man, focused on details of his decades-long research about how mistakes in DNA code are repaired. 

Then last October, she knew Modrich as aNobel Prize winner.

Still, the one title that didn’t change in six years of their relationship is “principal investigator,” which Lee uses to refer to Modrich, the doctor who benefits from Lee’s behind-the-scenes work as a research administrator. Lee, in coordination with Ester Self, the department’s business manager, and Joanne Bisson, administrative assistant to Modrich, help oversee compliance, budgeting and overall award management for grant funding administered to Duke departments like Biochemistry. Lee’s portfolio also includesImmunology, Radiation Oncology and Anesthesiology.

“We play a critical role because all research at Duke can be jeopardized if rules aren’t met and kept,” said Lee, research administrator in the School of Medicine’s Office of Research Administration. “Protocols, budgets, timing – we have to make sure they’re in line with Dukepolicies and federal regulations.”

Lee is one of about 300 dedicated research administrators across the university who spend a majority of their time supporting research. Within the Office of Research Administration, about $655 million is handled by Lee and her peers, with an average of $36 million per research administrator. The majority of that funding typically comes from the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency.

“My philosophy is the faculty member or researcher should have all the opportunity he or she can get to focus on their science and it’s our job to buy them the time to do that,” said John Michnowicz, associate dean and executive director of the Office of Research Administration. “I know the research administration community across the School and Campus, including our office, takes great pride in working behind the scenes in support of our tremendous faculty.”

A lot of that effort goes into continuous learning. Because regulations across local, state and federal levels change and evolve all the time, research administrators need to have plenty of educational opportunities, too. That shows up in weekly training meetings, mentoring programs and annual conferences sponsored by Duke. At a 2015 event sponsored by Duke’s Research Administration Continuous Improvement initiative, a record of 500 attendees came together for a day of workshops and brainstorming. 

“The conference is important and valuable to me because it’s our responsibility to be appraised of what’s going on in order for us to do our work most effectively,” said Vanessa Hurston, a grants and contracts administrator with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

The efforts of staff like Lee, Self, Bisson and Hurston may go unnoticed when the latest scientific discovery at Duke is announced, but Lee said that she continues to feel gratified knowing that she’s helping to support something bigger than herself. 

“Duke is one of the top places in the country for research because of all the smart people working here,” Lee said. “In the big scheme of things, I may play a small part, but I know my role is critical.”


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