Q & A with Philip Cunningham, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research Integrity, Wayne State University
Interviewed November 2017 by Lauren Tanabe.
Philip Cunningham has been at Wayne State since 1991, when he took a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology as a microbiologist. His lab used genetic techniques to identify new antibiotic drug targets and isolate new antibiotics resulting in 10 patents. In 2011, he accepted an administrative position as Assistant Vice President of Research Compliance in the Office of the Vice President for Research. He was subsequently promoted to Associate Vice President of Research Integrity in 2015.
Cunningham received his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University in 1987 and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology from 1987-1991. He is the recipient of Wayne’s Career Development Chair Award and the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. He was a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences in 2004 and was appointed an American Society for Microbiology Branch Lecturer from 2008-2010.
Q. What does the Associate Vice President of Research Integrity do?
As research has gotten more complex and as technology has proceeded, we have more risks. Because of risks that have turned into accidents, there have been a series of regulations put in place by different governments.
The idea of oversight bodies is to protect the people doing the research and the people around the people doing the research. For Wayne State to be able to do research with money from the federal government, we have to abide by a set of rules, and my job is to make sure we do.
I oversee biosafety, radiation safety, controlled substances, IRB (human subjects), IACUC (animals), conflict of interest, animal control, EHS (environmental health and safety), and research misconduct.
From the government’s standpoint, my job is to make sure Wayne State is following the rules, but from my perspective, I’m trying to help ease the burden of all those regulations on our researchers. In other words, what can I do to boil this down for them so they don’t each have to have become an expert in compliance? What can we do to make it so that people can do what they were trained to do which is generate data and move science forward?
Q. You started out as a scientist. How did you become the Associate Vice President of Research Integrity?
I was an active researcher for many years and then I was asked to consider this position, which was a huge change. I really had to think about it because my whole life has been research.
But there comes a time when it gets harder to get grants, especially in today’s environment. You have to look out for the young people because these are people who are just getting started and you can’t just dress them all up and then not give them the tools they need to succeed. My wife said, “At some point you’re going to lose your funding and I just can’t see you sitting in an office talking about the good old days. You need to be doing something to make a difference. [This job] will give you something to focus on and make changes.” I was so impressed with my wife!
Q. What is your day-to-day like?
When I took this job, I didn’t take it to put out fires. There’s a component of it that’s putting out fires, but really my job is more like putting down fire retardant. I want to spot the problems before they happen and I want to put things in place to keep them from happening, and we are really doing that.
We have a huge group of people in all these different areas and I meet with them on a regular basis. If there is some incident that occurs, we do a kind of a postmortem where we sit down and say, OK why did this happen? What could have prevented it? And what can we do now to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
That’s being reactive. My goal is to keep from having those postmortems.
A lot of my day is spent in meetings, back-to-back, attending these different groups, meeting with the people who are over all those areas I mentioned, and meeting with my boss, Dr. Stephen Lanier, the Vice President for Research at Wayne State.
So far it’s very gratifying. It’s sort of like research in that sense that you identify a problem, map out a plan to address it, and think it through to the end. If you don’t then you won’t put all the necessary controls in your experiments. In this field, I look at what we’re doing, I look at the situation as it exists now and I ask myself, But what if this were to happen? And I’m like, Oh, that would be a disaster! So what can we put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. What are the liabilities here? What are the risks?
[This position] gives you a chance to do thought experiments, to think ahead, to be creative, and to make a real impact. Without burdening researchers, we’re trying to achieve an enhanced safety culture at Wayne State.
Q. Do you think doing a postdoc is valuable if a student is interested in an administrative position such as yours?
It depends on the type of administrative position. For instance, generally the associate vice president over sponsored programs, the person who does the pre-awarding, post-award, and oversees all the grants that come through Wayne State University or other institutions, that person generally does not have to be a scientist or have a Ph.D. or held a postdoc. Most of them have at least a master’s degree and they usually have a business degree of some sort because there’s a lot of accounting.
But if you think about what my job is, my job involves a lot of safety committees. You have to have some reasonable understanding of the science. The people I interact with are mostly scientists and I think they would be frustrated if they couldn’t talk to me in their own language. Plus for me to evaluate and help develop measures that would assist researchers in doing work that’s compliant with both the safety and regulatory federal regulations, I have to be able to understand them. So I think a postdoc is big plus, certainly at a major research institution.
But I’ve also had Ph.D. students through the BEST program who wanted to do compliance and asked if they could do an internship. We had someone come through and do an internship with the IRB office and learn how that works—what the regulations are, how you oversee that. That person went on and got a permanent position as an IRB officer at another university.
But I think to oversee all of the committees, like I do, probably being a bona fide researcher who has had an active lab is important.
Q. How can students find these types of positions and prepare for them?
Once they finish their degree, they should look for some kind of an internship to start getting experience and see how they like it. They can then use that as a launchpad to go someplace else or, if there are positions available, they can step into a permanent position at that institution.
I would also say business classes are useful because it helps to know the terminology. Communications classes, and some kind of management classes would also be helpful.