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'Recruitment and education': Research for Me connects volunteers to clinical trials

In February 2020, just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic began its rapid spread across the United States, UNC launched a new website called "Research for Me" to make access to research studies easier for people in the Chapel Hill community.

First developed in October of 2019, the Research for Me website began as an initiative by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Sciences Institute (TraCS) in the UNC School of Medicine.

And with the onset of the pandemic, a renewed public interest in research made Research for Me all the more relevant, Emily Olsson, program manager for the recruitment and retention program of TraCS, said.

“Suddenly research is much more relevant to everyone’s lives,” Olsson said. “People are much more aware of the process and the importance of it. So we’ve really been pleased that we were up and running as this renewed interest hit, as people were seeking out information.”

The program acts as a way for community members to connect with studies at any level, including opportunities to volunteer in current medical trials.

Anna Sarnelli, a research communications specialist who handles the day-to-day operations of the website, said UNC researchers who are conducting studies with human participants can post about their study on the website, and interested applicants can reach out to researchers directly.

“We generally call it a recruitment and education website,” Sarnelli said. “The goal of our site is to connect the participant directly with the research.”

Patricia Lassalle, a researcher conducting three different studies on Research for Me, said the UNC Institutional Review Board highly encourages researchers to post studies involving human subjects on the website.

Lassalle said she saw this encouragement as a positive opportunity to reach a broader range of participants, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was pleasantly surprised that throughout the pandemic, it’s been easier to recruit passively,” Lassalle said. “It’s been a great asset to have during this time.”

Research for Me added a new focus on COVID-19 studies to its research categories. Other categories include men and women’s health, cancer and obesity research. By offering different types of studies, participants can gauge what they’re interested in and what level they’re most comfortable participating in. Olsson said Research for Me can give the public a new perspective on how research is done.

“I think a lot of people have a misconception that research has to be needles, or it has to be having your blood drawn, or it has to be taking a drug,” Olsson said. “Certainly those are a part of it, but there are mindfulness studies, survey studies, ones that are really looking at how people are experiencing different things and perceiving different things.”

Lassalle said she appreciates the format of the website, which allows her to contact interested people directly when she needs study participants.

“Because we’ve built up a list of potential participants, we can reach out to them, which is a benefit of the platform,” Lassalle said.

Although Research for Me is relatively new, Olsson said her team has plans to improve the website over time based on user input.

As part of their changes, Olsson said she wants to include more educational content and resources so participants can feel fully informed about both their studies and the research process.

With such unlimited access to research opportunities, Olsson said, she hopes more UNC students will become interested in research as a long-term career.

“I think what we hear often is that once people become part of the process and experience it, it’s really inspiring,” Olsson said. “My hope is that many of them will spark an interest to become researchers.”

If you're interested in participating in clinical trials, visit the Research for Me website.

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