Sanjur Brooks makes sure ethical guidelines are followed and continually studied and updated in all medical research conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University and its health system. “Our rule is ‘Do no harm,’” says Brooks, known as Sandy to friends and associates. “There is always a level of risk when you are a human subject — but we make sure that the risk is mitigated.”
With a staff of 18, Brooks oversees a human research portfolio of approximately 1,500 studies being conducted at VCU. She also helps to preside over two institutional review board panels. “When it comes to conducting any kind of research that involves a human subject, it must be reviewed and approved by an institutional review board, either in-house or a private one.”
Her department also conducts clinical trials and social behavioral research. This doesn’t always make her popular in certain research circles, she admits.
“Physicians and researchers don’t appreciate the role of the institutional review boards, they see them as more of an administrative widget that they need to get through to get their study approved,” she explains. “But we are the component that helps to protect the human subjects. The only thing they see is their idea and how it will benefit people in the future. But we are addressing the immediate harm to individuals right here and now.”
During her off time, Brooks mentors young professionals, especially those considering ethics as a career. “I help to prepare them on how to take their experience and bring it into a real job field. One thing about the field of ethics is that people think of it as a very obscure thing, as if you can’t get a job in it ... but the skills you develop are transferable.” She’s found mentees in a variety of places, not just at VCU. “One of them I met in a grocery store,” she says. “Some from my church ... I help them with interview techniques, their resumes, and assist them in finding jobs that have career ladders in them.”
With her husband, Arron James, the Cleveland native moved to Richmond a year and a half ago from Washington D.C., where she served as chief of ethics policy within the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. She was formerly the director of research programs and clinical ethics advisor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she managed the research portfolio for the Department of Defense. She still holds an adjunct seat in the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
“It’s quiet and slower-paced here, which I appreciate,” she says of her new home, which has already inspired her to learn to roller skate and ride a bike. “In DC, you are up at 4 in the morning just so you can get to work by 7:30. There’s a better quality of life here, and a very supportive environment.”