Employee of the Month – Erin Avery

June 2017, Nutrition Research Group and WELL

Erin Avery used to be a field biologist who worked primarily in botany. And she loved it. However, she spent long days working alone. When the mortgage crisis in 2007 caused many of her projects to lose funding, she used the opportunity to make a change and go back to school to explore her lifelong fascination with nutrition. She says, “I was always interested in how nutrition could best support endurance sports, as well as health and longevity, but now I also saw nutrition as a potential pathway to a job that I could be excited about, engaged in, and that would allow me to work with other people in a collaborative way and to have a positive impact on people.”

Now, as both clinical research coordinator and a research assistant (simultaneously!), Erin is immersed in the collaborative work she craved, and it’s a great fit. She says her coworkers are what she likes most about working at Stanford: “Coworkers can really make or break a job, and I genuinely love working with the people that I do. Every day there is a new, interesting challenge, and I come to work ready to dig into it, knowing that I have a smart, fun and collaborative group to back me up and to bounce stuff off.”

Erin splits her time between the Nutrition Studies Research Group (NSG) and the WELL Project, but, as her NSG manager, Jennifer Robinson, says, “You would think she worked 100 percent time for both of our groups.” Her WELL manager, Sandi Winter, agrees. She says, “Erin has managed the difficult task of working for two separate groups and is expertly able to prioritize her time to ensure that she meets the needs of both work groups.”

Her supervisors aren’t the only colleagues who’ve noticed how adept Erin is in the dual role. Antonella Dewell says, “In spite of having to juggle two demanding jobs, she always has a smile on her face and embraces any new project or request with great passion and motivation. Diane Demis agrees. She says, “Even when we pull her in multiple directions (by every one of her metaphorical limbs), Erin still manages to give 110 percent in an environment where most people would find themselves overwhelmed.  Despite this, she never neglects her responsibilities, and she NEVER takes shortcuts. It is in her core to complete tasks to the very end and by the books. ‘Procrastination?’ Not even in her personal dictionary of options.”

And according to colleague Matthew Grason, “fear” also isn’t in Erin’s personal dictionary. He says, “Erin has such a wide variety of projects she contributes to, I wonder how she can keep her thoughts organized. Beyond the standard duties of a research assistant, she takes the time to learn to code advanced functions in REDCap, create new modules for our research and take on the big scary projects the rest of us are hesitant to volunteer for.”

As part of managing “big scary projects” for both NSG and WELL, Erin has a very specific and impressive skill set that makes everything about research projects easier for all the groups she helps. Whether it’s streamlining a process or tending to details (like finding a food frequency questionnaire in Mandarin), Erin figures it out. In particular, her colleagues reference heroic efforts in three areas: recruitment, data collection and procedure/protocol.

Task: Recruitment

“When I joined the team,” says Robinson, “Erin was the study coordinator for a multi-site salt study. Stanford was one of many sites and had a very specific recruitment goal with little to no recruitment budget. Erin took this challenge head on and got extremely creative in her recruitment strategies. In the end, she met her targets ahead of schedule and yet was still able to enroll highly compliant participants.”

Christopher Gardner remembers Erin’s work on that study. He says, “Erin recruited 150 participants in a very timely manner and was solely responsible for making our group look very good in terms of rigor and productivity.” Now, he says, “Erin works on our WELL registry project for which we are trying to recruit and engage 10,000 participants. Erin tirelessly and creatively continues to find novel and innovative ways to move us forward toward this ambitious goal. Most recently, we decided to create a sugar detox challenge for the participants that have signed up to be part of the WELL Registry. We asked Erin to create some general materials describing the challenge and providing support and answers to frequently asked questions. In a very short amount of time, Erin created a fantastic set of materials, once again meeting and exceeding expectations.”

Erin’s work on WELL has made an impression on Naina Ahuja, as well. She says, “Erin is incredibly dedicated to improving our recruitment for WELL (our number one priority). She took on the responsibility of creating the content for a new series we have launched at WELL called mini-interventions. Her hard work and dedication to creating our first one led us to recruit more participants in the month of May then we had in the previous two to three months.”

Currently, Erin is also working on a microbial diversity study where she’s having a positive impact on recruitment. Susan Kirkpatrick says, “Erin managed and assisted with the design and implementation of the study. She demonstrated excellent organization skills and forethought with the recruitment and retention (97 percent) for 40 participants.”

Task: Data collection

After the recruitment phase of a study, Erin often plays a role in collecting data from participants. One of Erin’s data collection efforts is particularly legendary among her colleagues: hundreds of DEXA scans for Gardner’s DIETFITS Study. Robinson reports, “Erin was the sole technician for DEXA scans for a weight loss study (to assess percent body fat).  She was responsible for doing a scan on more than 500 patients at three points over the span of three years on a very tight data collection time frame. Erin’s exceptional dedication to the study, the data collection and the data integrity was unwavering.  I am still not sure how she did this, but she was able to not get sick and arrange her time off such that she personally completed ALL scans on ALL available participants at ALL time points! I know for a fact that she arranged several vacations around data collection periods just to make it most convenient for participants!”

A number of other colleagues recall the same notable dedication. Emily Amundson says, “Erin managed to never be sick and arrange vacation time such that she was able to do ALL of the DEXA scans for ALL participants in C2-C5. She is an incredible asset!” Antonella Dewell remembers it, too. She says, “During the running of our large DIETFITS Study, she trained to be a DEXA specialist and completed all the DEXA scans for our four cohorts without a break.” This praise was also echoed by Susan Kirkpatrick, Rise Cherin and Lisa Offinga.

Mandy Murphy Carroll says it worked because “Erin went out of her way to contact participants to schedule the scans and had excellent communication with health educators about where she needed support and what her progress was with our participants.” Sarah Farzinkhou notes, “Erin is very accommodating of study participants’ schedule and needs and will go above and beyond her scope to assist them.” Gardner says the participants remarked on this, as well. He says, “We often heard that the participants LOVED her attentiveness and patience.”

Task: Procedure/protocol

But Erin doesn’t stop at participant recruitment and data collection: she also takes great care with protocols and the data itself. Dalia Perelman says, “Erin has many talents which she brings to her job! She takes such care of the smallest details in the study management that I know nothing will ever fall through the cracks. On the other hand, she is also very visionary and can predict where the snags will happen, and she sets up systems to prevent them. I have worked in many different studies through different departments at Stanford, and I have never been more assured that all the parts of the study – from set-up to wrap-up – are going to run smoothly. The studies Erin works on are run like well-oiled machines.”

One example centers around the use of REDCap. Robinson says, “We have started to use REDCap exclusively for our data collection and workflow processes, and Erin took the initiative to work more closely with MedIRT to find new ways of using REDCap to simplify our data collection and make this project much more robust. She established a very complex system to push questionnaires out to participants as various time points throughout the study.  To make this work, Erin worked with MedIRT on the initial build and with the team on implementation.  While difficult on the front end, it has dramatically improved the data integrity of this study.  It is clear that Erin is always keeping an eye on project efficiency and data integrity – two vital components of any research group!”

Demis was also impressed by Erin’s use of REDCap. She says, “I witnessed Erin master the vast world of REDCap in only a few months, while keeping a hawk's eye on her participants.  When it comes to data integrity, Erin never falters. In fact, she sets the bar as high as is humanly possible. Recently, I received an email from Erin detailing how she tackled and mastered a new Excel skill: compiling and cleaning data imported from countless (messy) HealthWatch360 Excel sheets and customizing these documents to match the parameters set in REDCap. Analysis of our study results would not be possible without this cleaned data sheet, and Erin took the time to perfect a process that can be replicated for future related studies.”

Justin Sonnenburg has seen this in action, too. He says the protocol for one 17-week pilot study is “rather complex,” but “Erin created a novel system within REDCap to push out study reminders to participants as a way of keeping them on track. Several participants commented that they solely relied on these reminders to guide them through the study.” At one point, he says, there was a minor glitch in REDCap, but “Erin figured this out immediately and got everyone back on schedule while working with MedIRT to identify and solve the problem. This issue evidently had effected other campus users as well, but they hadn’t yet seen the impact. This new workflow that Erin has created will be used by our lab groups often as we move forward.  MedIRT also knows of the work Erin did and will recommend the process to other groups.”

Task: R&R

Somehow, Erin also manages to make time for rest and relaxation. She loves trail running, road cycling, mountain biking, backpacking and, as she describes it, “mostly anything that involves trudging for hours in nature to get to a great view.” She commutes to Stanford from Santa Cruz and tries to explore all the open space areas between the two cities.  Still connected to the field biology and botany where she got her start, she says, “It’s surprising how much wild open natural space there is just on the outskirts of campus.” Joseph Rigdon says this love of place contributes to Erin’s work environment. He calls it “her laidback Santa Cruz vibe” and says, “I really appreciate her positive attitude. She is a pleasure to work with.”

Erin has been with the Department of Medicine for almost four years and was completely surprised by the Employee of the Month Award.  She says, “We were in the middle of a meeting on campus and people started coming into the tiny conference room.  At first, I thought they were coming in to do some sort of maintenance on the equipment in the room.  It wasn’t until they called my name that I actually realized they were there for me.  I was totally stunned.  I was/am so honored to have received it.” She adds, “It’s a testament to the kind and supportive groups I work with that they took the time to nominate me for the award.  My coworkers from both teams work with such passion and dedication, that any one of them also deserved to get such an award.  I’m truly honored.”