In March 2020 and the months that followed, everyone had to adjust to new realities and working environments. At UNT, creativity and resilience prevailed as departments adapted, but under the leadership of Jamie Peno, the Division of Research and Innovation’s Research Integrity and Compliance unit didn’t just rebound, it rose to a new level of service.
"Integrity and compliance is an example of an area that instead of struggling through COVID, reorganized in terms of remote operations and as a result, became better," Mark McLellan, vice president for research and innovation, says. "Jamie shows her colors under stress. Instead of letting COVID bring operations to its knees, she brought improvements to flight."
In acknowledgment of her success, Peno was promoted March 1 from director of research integrity and compliance to assistant vice president for research integrity and compliance.
"Jamie really has become a campus leader. She epitomizes women in leadership at UNT," McLellan says. "I’m extraordinarily confident in her skills. It was time to recognize her success."
Peno has spent the past 16 years in research administration, joining UNT in 2015. In 2020, together with her team, she made substantial and innovative additions to compliance programs to ensure even greater transparency, accessibility, timeliness, collaboration and consistency.
"The Research Integrity and Compliance team has made tremendous efforts to streamline compliance processes for the UNT research community," Peno says. "And I am honored to step into this new role as a part of that commitment."
Others within the division and researchers across campus have lauded her leadership, creative problem solving and personal commitment to customer service.
"Jamie’s skill set, desire to help others, creative thinking and efficiency really helped to make my transition as a member of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) one that was pleasurable and enjoyable," says Angie Cartwright, associate professor of counseling and higher education, in the College of Education. "Every interaction has been a positive one. She talked me through paper IRB forms and applications, Cayuse technical issues and has even helped me think through ethical dilemmas with my own research studies."
Justin R. Watts, assistant professor of rehabilitation and health services, in the College of Health and Public Service agrees. "She is such an excellent collaborator and insightful problem solver," he says. "It’s encouraging to work with a colleague who is so passionate about their job and goes above and beyond to find solutions."
When McLellan joined UNT in late 2019, he quickly noticed that Research Integrity and Compliance was severely understaffed. At the time, there were only two full-time and one part-time staff members. Supported by Provost Jennifer Cowley, McLellan added the position of research compliance manager, now held by Meagan Sabatino.
"I truly can’t say enough wonderful things about the leadership that Jamie has provided," Sabatino says. "She works tirelessly to find creative solutions to problems that are often nuanced and difficult to unravel — and always with a positive attitude and in a collaborative way."
The team began 2020 with four members, and by July, Peno had hired two new employees, Hannah Snowberger and R.J. Jalilian, who focus solely on the IRB program, an area of critical need. The IRB oversees the safety and protection of human subjects in research conducted by faculty, staff and students.
The unit didn’t just add staff. Operations were restructured with a novel approach — Snowberger works to triage IRB submissions and communications to increase efficiency. In the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, the team saw an average processing time of 76.5 days for IRB submissions. By the end of the fourth quarter, after training the new team members, they averaged 6.8 days, which has made a significant difference for researchers.
"Under Peno’s leadership, the IRB process was transformed from one that often took months into one that takes days," says Victor Prybutok, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Toulouse Graduate School. "This is possibly her greatest accomplishment because it impacts a large number of our graduate students and faculty researchers."
This significant increase in the efficiency of IRB processing was accomplished in the midst of constantly changing research environments.
"Even with the effects of the pandemic, Jamie led our team as we worked together to streamline processes, train new staff and keep five compliance program areas moving while transitioning to remote work environments," Sabatino says.
When the pandemic forced a shutdown of on-campus operations, researchers across disciplines started to pivot. The IRB team escalated COVID-19 studies, but they also continued to support other researchers as campus shut down and then reopened with new restrictions.
"We had researchers that were unable to conduct their research remotely," Peno says. "Or it just wasn’t feasible any longer because of the population they worked with, so we had to work to find creative ways to ensure that research carried on while maintaining compliance."
The shift to remote work brought new ways of supporting researchers. Online meetings turned out to have many advantages over in-person meetings and phone calls, such as the ability to use screen share and to walk people through electronic applications in real time.
"While we can respect the absolutely devastating impact that COVID has made on so many lives, in terms of the operation of our IRB, we actually saw an increase in our ability to help researchers," Peno says. "I think that having them come to us online and to be able to provide service in a more immediate fashion, it’s really opened up what I thought wasn’t possible."
Improving the IRB submission process may be the most noticeable improvement, but it is only one example of Peno’s innovation and commitment to continuously improving processes. Her role will be heavily involved in the implementation of GRAMS, UNT’s new system for research administration. Bharath Prabhakaran, deputy chief information office and associate vice chancellor for enterprise applications for the UNT System, credits Peno’s strong leadership and influence with enabling its success so far.
"I can say without doubt that Jamie is one of the most passionate, collaborative and knowledgeable folks I have had the privilege to work with," Prabhakaran says. "Her elevation to assistant vice president will help take research compliance at UNT to the next level."
McLellan anticipates more opportunities to grow programs under Peno’s leadership.
"This role looks to improve the overall researcher experience as they navigate complex compliance situations," he says.
Peno says that while compliance can be viewed by some in a negative way, her team tries to view it from a positive perspective.
"We’re here to help you get through something that’s required by federal regulations as opposed to impeding your research or making it more difficult for you," Peno says. "That’s what our unit strives for every day – to ensure that researchers know they have resources available to them to help them through these processes as opposed to them having to go through it alone. They are not alone."