Nathalia Henry brings passion, perspective, and leadership to the IRB Office’s support of ethical research
When people ask Nathalia Henry about her every-day-is-a-good-day attitude, most are surprised by the simple truth behind her smile: running water.
More specifically, it’s temperature-controlled, pressurized water flowing from the faucet, and on demand.
“When I moved to the United States, every shower seemed almost magical,” says Henry, executive director of Northwestern’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) Office, the unit tasked with helping ensure that the rights and wellbeing of human research subjects are safeguarded. “Twenty years later, showers are still magical. It’s hard not to smile and it’s hard not to carry that positivity throughout the day.”
Henry grew up the oldest of three siblings on a plot of land in rural Jamaica, one filled with ducks, geese, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and enough sunshine to last a lifetime. Henry’s father, a jack of all trades was also a farmer. Mixed with the joy of 80-degree afternoons, however, was the fear of water scarcity that inevitably followed long bouts of rainless weather. Henry vividly recalls having to draw water manually from the bottom of a deep tank to fill 5-gallon buckets. She made multiple trips per day, carrying the water into the house for baths and other needs.
Those memories — mixed with current comforts — are a part of what makes it easy for Henry to greet colleagues with a “happy Monday” or a beaming smile at the start of a meeting.
An upbeat atmosphere often coincides with the very serious work being done by the 22 members of the IRB team, Henry says. In the 18 months since returning to Northwestern — she previously worked at the University as an IRB senior coordinator and then IRB manager from 2003-06 — Henry’s positive-first leadership style has been well established.
“Nathalia’s calmness and open communication has built a sense of trust that inspires staff confidence,” says Lisa Linn, biomedical IRB manager. “Since her return, Nathalia has brought greater transparency to the office and created a climate where IRB staff members are more aware of ongoing projects.”
The creation of an Operations Team — composed of representatives from each IRB Office team — and the addition of an electronic project board, are also credited with keeping staff informed.
“If you think about what the building blocks of relationships are, they are elements such as respect, trust, transparency, compassion, and empathy,” says Henry. “I enjoy sharing meaningful connections with the people who I work alongside. “And I’ve found that when we maintain open communication with each other, support one another, and value what our colleagues each bring to the table, this then positively permeates the IRB Office culture and the way we operate as a team.”
That teamwork has been on display during the course of the office’s re-accreditation efforts, says Linn. Northwestern was first awarded the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Program’s (AAHRPP) accreditation in 2016. The University joined more than 230 global organizations to have earned AAHRPP accreditation, an honor reserved for those institutions that have designed extensive safeguards and a culture of ethical research conduct into their human research program.
“You’ll hear Nathalia say with some frequency that she wants the IRB Office to be one of the best places to work — and she does not limit that distinction to Northwestern,” says Piper Hawkins-Green, IRB compliance manager. “She takes the time to get to know each staff member, learn their gifts, and encourages them to grow, develop, and use their talents within the office. The result is that the staff feels valued and part of the solution.”
Northwestern’s IRB Office is charged with developing and directing the University’s Human Research Protection Program (HRPP). Many offices across the University’s research infrastructure make up Northwestern’s HRPP, but at its core is the IRB, whose primary mission is to protect the rights and welfare of human participants involved in research. In 2018, the IRB Office processed approximately 15,000 submissions, with more than 4000 active research projects being managed at any point in time. With about 70 percent of those projects related to biomedical disciplines and 30 percent related to the social sciences, the IRB Office maintains a strong footprint on both the Chicago and Evanston campuses.
“We are continuously interacting with research teams, not only for IRB submission processing, but the IRB Office maintains a robust post-approval monitoring program in which we work collaboratively with investigators, and this is coupled with multiple education and training engagements,” says Henry. “The IRB Office team members will often express that the mission of the IRB is easy to buy into because it involves not only protecting human participants who volunteer for research studies, but also working with our faculty and research staff to facilitate the ethical conduct of human research.”
From Lab to Leader
Henry’s career in science actually began in a research lab at Southern Illinois University, where she earned a master’s degree in molecular biology, biochemistry, and microbiology.
In an effort to be closer to the point where patients actively benefit from her work, Henry transitioned to a role at Pharmacia, a pharmaceutical company based in Skokie, Illinois. After Pfizer purchased the company in 2003, Henry used the knowledge she gained about working with IRBs to pursue a position at Northwestern. The move marked the beginning of what is now almost 16 consecutive years working in partnership with Northwestern Medicine (she spent seven years at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and four years at what is today the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab).
Henry has used the experiences of working with different groups to strengthen her own ideas of what a team approach should look like. In addition to bringing members of the IRB Office together to think creatively and brainstorm, she has encouraged the development of working groups to empower decision making at every level of the office.
“We intentionally invest the time to tap into the depth of each other’s expertise; we brainstorm in safe spaces and work toward consensus on different ideas to better the work we do,” she says.
At the biweekly Operations Meetings, Henry see the participants — who each represent one of four units within the office — as vital to the process. From the Operations meeting, which Henry refers to as a core think tank, they each bring back information to the other members of the larger team and then those members communicate with one another, as well as the broader research community to form a system of interconnected wheels and gears that is strengthened by the sum of its parts.
As the core of Northwestern’s HRPP, the IRB Office helps to coordinate University-wide efforts alongside the Conflict of Interest Office, Office of the General Counsel, and Sponsored Research. The IRB Office also works closely with Research Integrity, another of the 19 offices that make up Northwestern Research.
“We also strive to maintain close ties and partnerships with our federal regulators, accrediting body, and peer institutions,” Henry says. “Our goal, second to protecting human research participants, is to elevate our national standing and establish ourselves as a model HRPP. One way we do that is by maintaining a line of communication with all of these entities, as well as our research faculty and staff.”
As Northwestern’s research enterprise continues to grow — it reached a record $702.1 million in sponsored funding last year — the IRB Office looks forward to growing along with research administrative infrastructure to support the efficient and ethical conduct of human research in which Northwestern University and its affiliates are engaged, Henry says.
With the Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center near completion, “it’s exciting to be a part of what’s happening at Northwestern right now,” she adds.
“My work is made far easier by the people I labor alongside,” Henry says. “The IRB Office includes some of the most passionate and energetic people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. As a team, we recognize that together, the strength of 22 exponentially exceeds that of any single individual. It’s really amazing to see what we’ve been able to accomplish just this past year amidst many regulatory changes and other challenges. And I’m looking forward to watching our IRB Office team grow together into the future.”