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Data Professional Reflects on Her ‘Journey Back into Clinical Research’ During AAPI Heritage Month – ACRP

In recognition of May being Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, ACRP reached out for some thoughts on the importance of the event to Kiruthika Arumugam, MS, a Clinical Data Operator with Natera, Inc., and Treasurer for the ACRP Northern California Chapter. Before moving to the San Francisco Bay area, she studied biotechnology in India and gained several years of clinical research industry experience there in research and development and clinical data management through work with Avesthagen and IQVIA. 

ACRP: Can you share some details on where you grew up, what you studied, how you first got drawn into clinical research, and what kind of duties you have now? 

Arumugam: Having grown up in Tamil Nadu, India, my fascination with science emerged early in my childhood, fueling a lifelong dream of becoming a scientist. Pursuing this passion, I attained a master’s degree in biotechnology and commenced my professional journey in oncology, specifically delving into the early stages of drug discovery for breast and prostate cancer. 

Driven by a profound curiosity for clinical research, I transitioned into the clinical data realm, starting my career as a clinical data assistant. Upon relocating to the United States, I encountered a waiting period for my work visa, during which I prioritized my familial responsibilities. Despite focusing on family for several years, my ambition to become a clinical trial manager remained steadfast. To stay abreast of industry advancements, I pursued a certificate in Clinical Trial Design and Management at the University of California Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley extension. 

My introduction to ACRP led to active involvement in the Northern California Chapter, initially as the Outreach Committee Chair and currently as the Treasurer since 2020. Engaging with this organization has refined my organizational and interpersonal skills, ensuring I stay updated on the latest developments in the field and showcasing my ability to adapt to new systems and tools to support educational initiatives. 

Joining Natera as a clinical data operator marks my reentry into clinical research. My responsibilities include accessioning patient samples with high efficiency and accuracy, as well as creating new orders on the laboratory inventory management system while conducting necessary checks to ensure proper accessioning. This role signifies the beginning of my journey back into clinical research, with much more to accomplish in the future. 

ACRP: What does AAPI Heritage Month mean in your personal and professional life? 

Arumugam: AAPI Heritage Month holds distinct significance in both my personal and professional realms. On a personal level, it’s a time of introspection and celebration, where I reconnect with my cultural heritage and familial traditions. It’s a moment to honor the journeys of my ancestors, whose resilience and sacrifices have paved the way for my own opportunities and experiences. AAPI Heritage Month allows me to embrace and share the diverse tapestry of cultures, languages, and customs that make up my identity, fostering a sense of pride and belonging within the larger AAPI community. 

Professionally, AAPI Heritage Month serves as a platform for recognition and advocacy within the workplace. It’s an opportunity to amplify the voices and contributions of AAPI colleagues, highlighting their talents, expertise, and leadership. By promoting diversity and inclusion, organizations can harness the unique perspectives and experiences of AAPI individuals, fostering innovation and driving positive change. 

ACRP: From what you’ve seen, can you characterize how active persons of AAPI heritage are as professionals and participants in clinical research in the U.S. versus what would be an ideal situation? What can/should ACRP and similar organizations do to address any gaps in this area? 

Arumugam: From what I’ve seen, individuals of AAPI heritage are actively engaged in the field of clinical research in the United States, contributing their expertise and insights across various roles and sectors. However, there are notable disparities in representation, particularly in leadership positions and decision-making roles, compared to their presence in the overall population. In an ideal scenario, the participation and influence of AAPI professionals in clinical research would be proportionate to their demographic representation. Achieving this ideal involves addressing systemic barriers and biases that hinder the advancement and recognition of AAPI professionals in the field. 

To bridge these gaps, organizations can take proactive steps: 

  • Advocacy and Representation: Advocate for increased representation of AAPI professionals in leadership positions and decision-making bodies within the organization and industry at large. Actively support the nomination and promotion of AAPI candidates for leadership roles and ensure their voices are heard in shaping policies and initiatives. 
  • Community Engagement: Engage with AAPI communities through outreach programs, partnerships, and collaborations to build trust and facilitate participation in clinical research. Address cultural and language barriers to ensure equitable access to research opportunities and resources. 

By implementing these strategies, ACRP and similar organizations can work toward creating a more inclusive and equitable clinical research environment that harnesses the full potential of AAPI professionals and promotes diversity and excellence in the field. I trust that ACRP is already addressing these concerns, and collectively, we are working to bridge these gaps. 

ACRP: Are there often clinical trials sponsored in your area, or trials that could be conducted, to adequately serve the local AAPI population in terms of conditions that affect them more than other populations? For any that are conducted, is patient recruitment/outreach for persons of AAPI heritage a well-developed process or more of a challenge each time? 

Arumugam: Clinical trials conducted in areas with substantial AAPI populations may indeed focus on health conditions that disproportionately affect this community, such as certain types of cancer (e.g., liver, stomach), hepatitis B, diabetes, and mental health issues. However, ensuring adequate representation of AAPI individuals in these trials can pose challenges. 

Patient recruitment and outreach efforts targeting the AAPI community vary in effectiveness. In some cases, these efforts are well-developed and employ culturally sensitive strategies, collaborating with community organizations, ethnic media outlets, and healthcare providers serving AAPI communities. These initiatives aim to raise awareness about clinical trials, provide education on research participation, and address cultural and linguistic barriers. 

However, in other instances, patient recruitment for AAPI individuals may be more challenging. Barriers such as language differences, cultural stigmas, and mistrust of the healthcare system can impede recruitment efforts. Overcoming these barriers requires additional resources and tailored approaches. To address these challenges, collaboration between clinical trial sponsors, research institutions, and community organizations is essential. Culturally competent recruitment strategies may involve leveraging trusted community leaders, providing language-specific materials, offering culturally appropriate incentives, and ensuring that trial staff are trained in cultural sensitivity. 

By prioritizing inclusive recruitment practices and actively engaging with AAPI communities, clinical trials can better serve the needs of this population and ensure that research findings are applicable and beneficial to all segments of society. 

Edited by Gary Cramer