Editor’s note: The N.C. Biotech Center and WRAL TechWire announced recently the launch of the Bio Jobs Hub, a project designed to match workers and employers in the growing NC life science community. Each Wednesday TechWire plans to feature a story about what’s happening in life science careers. 

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – With 775 companies employing more than 67,000 North Carolinians, the Tar Heel state boasts a robust, strong, and expanding life science and biopharmaceutical industry, and amidst the prior year navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, employment and projected employment across the state has increased, according to the North Carolina Biotech Center.

According to the Biotech Center, among those 775 companies, 155 are contract research and testing companies, or CROs, which in aggregate provide close to 25,000 jobs and operate more than 4,500 clinical trials throughout the entire state.

Last week the Biotech Center hosted a conversation on careers in clinical research, focusing in particular on the role, work, and career trajectory of clinical research associates, often abbreviated as CRAs.

Bio Jobs Hub

The takeaway: a clinical research associate role might be a great fit for you if you already possess the transferable skills essential for navigating the job.

According to the three panelists, the most critical skills for success in a clinical research associate position include excelling at building professional relationships, often at a distance though also in close working proximity to colleagues with decades of specialized medical expertise; the willingness and ability to ask deft questions and learn quickly, absorbing as much information as possible with your brain acting like a sponge; and a love of problem-solving within a regulatory framework that relies on preset protocols set in place to optimize efficacy and improve the possibility of a successful clinical trial, resulting in enhanced patient outcomes on a large scale.

Solving problems

“I really enjoy helping people solve problems,” said Tony Connell, a CRA with Covance by labcorp.  “As a CRA, you are at the center of a clinical trial, so I get to do a variety of things on a daily basis, and I can multitask and do six different tasks, and I enjoy that because I get to wear many hats and build my skillset.”

Connell launched his career after serving as a legislative researcher, finding out that Covance was hiring through a returned Google search he performed on the industry by keying in the search term “clinical research job.”  He joined the company in an entry-level role, which he recommended that anyone interested in navigating a career path into a clinical research organization work in prior to becoming a CRA, but said he knew from an early point that he wanted to develop and become a CRA.  “As a CRA, you’re at the center of a lot of different crossroads in the trial,” said Connell, noting that one of his favorite roles as a CRA is building relationships with a principal investigator and their staff, and through that relationship, getting to ask questions to learn and acquire additional knowledge.

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“You’re not going to be doing something that you’re an expert in, and that’s okay, and when you go to meet the doctors, they know that you’re not an expert,” said Michael Quinn, Clinical Research Associate, Clinical Solutions, General Medicine, at Syneos Health, who came to join a CRO after studying public health as an undergraduate student.

“Nurses are really, really busy, and may not have the time, or enough time, to immediately resolve an issue,” he advised, stressing the importance of learning and practicing patience and navigating multiple responsibilities and relationships, often on short timelines, often as somewhat of an outsider to the day-to-day work.  “I think it all comes back to being their advocate.”

“As a CRA, I was assigned to one to two projects, and I’ve always been in the oncology space as well,” said Alvita Amanchukwu, MSCR, Manager, Clinical Operations, Clinical Delivery, at PRA Health Sciences, who now oversees and manages a team of CRAs for the organization.   “I would deal with one to two studies as a CRA, but now in a management role, I’m aligned across the board with all the trials that my team is involved in, and I love that as well.”

Amanchukwu knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in a clinical research organization, noting that one of her high school graduation requirements placed her into a research project with a family member at the Medical College of Georgia, where she shadowed colleagues and saw first-hand interactions with patients, including at a renal transplant clinic.

“Seeing her interacting with patients, and the level of care they were receiving, including access to treatments that weren’t yet available on the market yet, that was really fascinating,” said Amanchukwu.  She was hooked.  It took a few years of undergraduate work at Campbell University, then she launched her career after a summer internship helped her land her first job.  Once in the role, she pursued a masters of science in clinical research in an evening program that allowed her to work toward her professional degree while also working her day job at the CRO.

Helping improve lives of patients

“At this particular organization, it was a project assistant role,” said Amanchukwu. “I was able to gain that therapeutic knowledge on oncology, and be trained by those medical directors who were doing those medical protocols.”  Amanchukwu relayed that her company also allowed, and sometimes required, collaboration with colleagues, some of whom naturally had much more experience than she.  “Critical to my advancement within the industry was really just being a sponge, shadowing and absorbing,” said Amanchukwu.  “I was afforded the opportunity to see what it would be like to be a CRA.”

Now she manages a team of CRAs, and spends much of her time overseeing the company’s clinical trials, managing the staff, and coaching her team. Yet what she still loves most is seeing the impact of their work on improving the quality of their patient’s lives.

“As a CRA, I loved the travel, I loved being able to have a relationship with the site, and just seeing the impact on the quality of life for patients with chronic conditions is just amazing,” she said.  “It puts into perspective what you do on a day-to-day basis, having an impact, and seeing someone who had a dire prognosis say that they are now able to play with their grandchildren is just amazing.”

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Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly noted the total number of companies and jobs in the life science and biopharmaceutical industry.  The earlier data, noting more than 80 companies that employ more than 26,000 state residents, refer only to biopharma manufacturing, not the entire industry.  We’ve updated the data in the story.