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CHOP Celebrates its Clinical Research MVPs

Published on May 21, 2024 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 1 month 3 weeks ago
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Faith Alunni

Faith Alunni, keynote speaker for the 2024 CRC RE@CH Awards and clinical research coordinator at CHOP.

By Jillian Rose Lim

Now in its 11th year, the CRC Research Excellence (RE@CH) Awards and Recognition Event is an annual awards ceremony recognizing the professionalism, compassion, and unique ways that clinical research staff contribute to breakthroughs.

Faith Alunni, a clinical research coordinator (CRC) at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and keynote speaker for this year's CRC RE@CH Awards, knows the weight of this work intimately.

"On paper, our job as a CRC is simple," said Alunni at the event held May 7 by the Clinical Research Support Office (CRSO) at CHOP Research Institute. "But what is at the core of research? Patients and their families. It is our duty to honor their trust by conducting our research with integrity, compassion, and respect."

Twenty-four years ago, Alunni was born joined at the chest and abdomen to her twin sister, Hope. Prior to their birth, CHOP's Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment (CFTD) discovered that though the twins had separate hearts, Hope needed the strength of her sister's heart to survive. Within seconds of their separation, Hope passed away. And for Alunni and her family, what followed was hundreds of doctor's appointments, multiple reconstructive surgeries, countless scans, and lots of uncertainty.

With the support of her family, friends, and clinical team, however, Alunni grew strong and healthy. She became passionate about pursuing medicine and supporting patients and families as they navigate uncertainty. At CRC RE@CH so many years later, she stood before a packed auditorium of fellow clinical research staff, celebrating the work that changes children's lives.

"As we applaud the research coordinators and managers being recognized today for their dedication and commitment to advancing medicine for all patients and families, I want to leave you with this," Alunni said. "No matter what your goal is or what your research seeks to ascertain, all it takes is one person speaking up to potentially change the lives of one family and their child. And although one child may not seem like a lot, that one child was once me."

CRC RE@CH: A CHOP Tradition

Special guest Richard Aplenc, MD, PhD, assistant vice president and chief clinical research officer at CHOP, shared remarks at the event about clinical research staff's important roles.

The CRSO defines "clinical research staff" as those working in clinical, behavioral, injury prevention, community, and school-based research programs.

"It's really your work that makes everything that we do in the Research Institute possible," Dr. Aplenc said. "None of our clinical trials could go forward without you, so this celebration is so important and so meaningful to us on the administrative and scientific side."

In a departure from previous years, the 2024 CRC RE@CH Award was divided into two categories. All CHOP investigators were invited to nominate their clinical research staff for one of two tracks: CRCs/Clinical Research Study Leads or Clinical Research Managers/Nurses. A selection subcommittee then selected two winners from the former category and one from the latter. This year, the CRSO counted a record number of 38 nominations across 22 departments.

"It's important to say that the selection committee reviewers were so impressed with the extraordinary work that the research staff do and their unique and valued contributions to the Research Institute," Dr. Aplenc said. "I want to congratulate all the nominees. We all benefit from the work you do – both personally and also all the patients for whom we're trying to improve their medical outcomes and clinical trajectories."

Meet the winners...

Laura MacMullen and Dr. Marni Falk

Laura MacMullen, CRC RE@CH Award recipient and Dr. Marni Falk at the 2024 CRC RE@CH Awards.

Laura E. MacMullen, Clinical Research Program Manager I in the Division of Human Genetics and the Mitochondrial Medicine Program

Nominated by Marni Falk, MD, physician and executive director of the Mitochondrial Medicine Frontier Program, MacMullen has worked with Dr. Falk since the program received Frontier status in 2017.

"Laura is the epitome of an amazing clinical research program manager," Dr. Falk said. "Together with some other fabulous program managers and coordinators, she really taught [the Mitochondrial Medicine Frontier Program] how to become a multifaceted powerhouse locally and globally."

Dr. Falk lauded MacMullen's "remarkable regulatory expertise" in everything from data management systems to registries to partnerships and sponsors. She also noted her experience coordinating rigorous natural history studies, ability to be a "mentor and collaborator" to all, and so much more.

"I always joke, when Laura interviewed for this position, she was working for NASA," Dr. Falk added. "And I said why in the world would you want to leave such a cool career?"

MacMullen's response: "I wanted to help people closer to Earth."

Ahtish Arputhan

Ahtish Arputhan, CRC RE@CH Award recipient.

Ahtish Arputhan, Clinical Research Coordinator II in the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes

Nominated by Andrea Kelly, MD, MSCE, physician in the Division of Endocrinology and Diabetes, Arputhan stood out for his unique ability to work with patients and families, as well as his overall excellence and leadership. Arputhan specializes in working with individuals with Down syndrome and their families, and he also manages studies with college-age controls.

Rachel Walega, a program manager who wrote one of his supporting nominations, said at the event: "I've never met someone who can connect with patients the way he does, and with such a diverse group of patients … He really navigates it in a way that ensures they understand what they're consenting and assenting to for both populations, and he does it so well."

On a lighthearted note, Walega added that their internal team guidelines for "useful stuff" state: "Before making any rash decisions, take a minute to pause, take three deep breaths, and ask yourself, 'What would Ahtish do?' And I think that pretty much sums it up."

Kristina Ziolowski, Clinical Research Coordinator III in the Division of Neonatology

Kristina Ziolowski and Dr. Sara DeMauro

Kristina Ziolowski, CRC RE@CH Award recipient and Dr. Sara DeMauro at the 2024 CRC RE@CH Awards.

Sara DeMauro, MD, MSCE, neonatologist in the Division of Neonatology, nominated Ziolowski, who was a medical assistant at the same primary clinic where Dr. DeMauro was a pediatric resident in 2004.

"Even then she was a powerhouse," Dr. De Mauro said. "She knew how everything was supposed to be done."

In the years that followed, Ziolowski took her expertise working with children and families to CHOP's Neonatal Follow-Up Program as a clinical research coordinator. It was a role Dr. DeMauro said Ziolowski took on with "grace and ease" and soon – no small feat – Ziolowski was running all of Dr. DeMauro's outpatient clinical trials in Neonatology.

"We do lots of clinical trials, and nearly all of them demand a follow-up of at least two years of the participants," Dr. DeMauro said. "Kris meets every family and every kid … she continues to track them down and find them, and they love her. Everyone she interacts with adores her and loves working with her – she is the consummate professional."

A special thank you to the more than 80 investigators and more than 70 clinical research staff involved in this year's CRC RE@CH Awards, as well as the CRC RE@CH Awards Steering Committee and Selection Subcommittee.