Spotlight on… Emily Smith and Grace Wallace

Emily Smith and Grace Wallace, Senior Program Manager and Project Manager respectively for the Administrative, Education, and Analytic Support Core at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Interviewed by Asri Mumpuni, November 2021.  



Tell us about your academic and research background. What led you to work in clinical research administration in cardiovascular medicine?

Emily: I received my MPH in Epidemiology from the University of Georgia after which I completed an ORISE fellowship with the CDC in Cancer Prevention and Control. I moved to Colorado in 2012 and began working with Kaiser Permanente grantees to help implement data collection tools and build quantifiable metrics into their program evaluation plans to measure impact and to leverage future resources. I moved to Nashville in 2015 and began working with Matt Freiberg and the V-CREATE team on the Veterans Aging Cohort Study event adjudication projects, but found research administration to best utilize my education and skillset. What I love most about my job is the duality of maintaining our center’s big-picture perspective while also contributing to core tasks that enable projects to move forward from ideas to discoveries.

Grace: I got my BS in Health Sciences from James Madison University in Virginia. I worked in the pediatric emergency room at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System (VCUHealth) from 2014-2016 as a Nursing Aide, which is where I learned the bulk of my clinical skills, like phlebotomy, measuring vital signs, and doing EKGs. I got my start in clinical research as a Clinical Research Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics at VCUHealth, where I worked from 2016 until 2018 when my husband and I moved to Nashville for his dermatology residency at VUMC. I started out as a Clinical/Translational Research Coordinator II at VUMC in the division of cardiovascular medicine and have worked my way up to Project Manager since then. Research administration plays to my strengths and interests: compliance, regulatory management, and project management. I enjoy the organizational aspects of research administration, and I pride myself on knowing that our studies are always audit-ready.

Grace, what has been your experience during this early stage of starting the project? Are there any aspects you have enjoyed most? Are there lessons you have learned that you would like to share?

Emily Smith and Grace Wallace pictured with Matt Freiberg, Megan Stewart, and Lauren Lee Shaffer.

Getting Project 1 of the P01 up and running has been a very big undertaking. If it weren’t for the existing relationship and infrastructure that URBAN ARCH established between VUMC, Boston University, and Pavlov, this process would have taken significantly longer. The logistics of conducting research at a U.S. site are not necessarily translatable to Russian sites, so identifying those nuances and proactively preparing for them has been the biggest challenge so far. There are all kinds of small details that we have had to think through: everything from how to make sure biospecimens are kept frozen should they get stuck in customs when being shipped from Russia to the U.S., to making sure we are compliant with Russian tax laws regarding participant compensation. This is the first international research project that I have overseen, so the learning process has been very enjoyable for me; the Russian study team has been great to work with- they have been very generous with their time in answering all of my questions and translating all of our study materials from English to Russian. The most important lesson I’ve learned from getting projects up and running throughout my career in research has been to critically think through each step of a research protocol and the reality/feasibility of carrying out the project per protocol; many ideas sound great on paper but are very hard, if not impossible, to actually implement. Ensuring that the entire project is well-thought out, feasible, and properly explained in the protocol is essential to the long-term success of any project.

What is one thing about yourself that readers might find surprising?

Emily: It may not be surprising given that we live in Tennessee, but I consider myself a hobby homesteader. My family and I have 52 acres about an hour outside of Nashville with a “dacha” of sorts that we escape to as much as possible. We love the simplicity and ability to disconnect. While we don’t have any farm animals other than our dogs that travel with us, we have recently constructed a barn and have plans for a 2022 pond installation.

Grace: I love to read, and I have a “Bookstagram” (an Instagram account dedicated to books), where I share my personal reviews of books I’ve read and other fun book-related content, like holiday gift guides and something I call “Bookshelf Detective”, where I try to identify the books on the bookshelves of popular figures as seen in their photos or Zoom interviews. Follow me @gracefacereads if you’re interested!