Merck Initiative Builds and Diversifies Clinical Research Workforce

Riley O'Connor, Associate Clinical Research Associate, Merck

Welcoming employees with transferable skills from varied backgrounds.

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As noted by the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP), the workforce engaged in clinical research suffers from shortfalls and lack of diversity, with reasons including lack of awareness of the profession among otherwise suitable candidates, and the typical prerequisite for two years of experience even for entry-level roles. A new associate clinical research associate (ACRA) professional development program at Merck, known as MSD outside the U.S. and Canada, aims to increase and diversify the clinical research workforce. The program welcomes and trains new employees who do not have a CRA background but have transferable skills.

Riley O’Connor, an Associate CRA at Merck, is one of these employees. “I’m delighted to be part of Merck’s ACRA program. This builds background knowledge with an ACRP training course titled ‘CRA Core Competency Foundations’ and carousel training, which involves four training sessions focusing on the various phases of clinical trials and Merck’s global processes for those phases. The training program also includes hands-on learning with face-to-face sessions for the full cohort at Merck headquarters, including a review of what to expect from the CRA role, and how to perform key tasks such as query writing or visit reports. There have also been virtual learning lessons including updates on Merck processes and best practices. The ultimate goal of the training program is taking on the full workload of a CRA. This is done through a combination of co-monitoring, ‘see one-do one’ experiences, and observation visits.”

Educated at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, O’Connor has a B.S. in Exercise and Sport Science and a Master of Science in Clinical Exercise Physiology. O’Connor’s master’s thesis sparked his interest in medical research. “During that period, I found I enjoyed communicating and working with patients and helping them recover – and I also found that I was pretty well organized and well suited to doing this,” says O’Connor. “I knew I wanted to continue to help patients in some way, especially those who have limited options or belong to underserved populations.”

This led O’Connor to work as a clinical research coordinator (CRC) at the University of Minnesota. After that, he moved into a similar role in a large contract research organization. “In common with many people who find themselves in clinical research, I stumbled upon it,” notes O’Connor. “I went from a background in sport science and working in cardiac rehabilitation to the CRC role in academia.”

“Bridging the gap between being a CRC and an ACRA can be challenging – as can the step from academia into industry. I was attracted to Merck by the professional development opportunities – including gig assignments, where employees can work alongside roles in areas outside their immediate department, gaining new experiences and learning about other careers within Merck. This will give me chance to explore some of the latest technology involved in clinical research.”

O’Connor concludes, “I didn’t see myself coming into the CRA role – I thought it was unattainable. It’s so hard to break into industry, yet Merck provides an excellent opportunity to bridge this gap into a career that truly helps patients. I feel very fortunate to be part of this exciting program, knowing that my managers will encourage me to pursue my interests going forward, while contributing to development of potentially life-saving medicines.”

Author: Jill Dawson