Lauren Robertson’s connection to the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Network began years before she learned of the position of Executive Director, a role she stepped into in December 2011.
“When I started at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in 2006, I was the Finance Manager in Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes’ lab working with the ACTG’s Partners/Harvard AIDS Clinical Trials Unit (CTU),” Robertson says. “I was in that position when the ACTG went through its re-competition for federal funding that fall.”
Robertson worked for Kuritzkes, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases within the Department of Medicine at BWH in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, for two years. In 2008, she accepted the position of Administrative Manager of Research for the Department of Medicine (DOM) at the hospital. In 2011, the ACTG’s Leadership and Operations Center (LOC) at BWH was created since the site is one of the Network’s 75 locations worldwide and one of four in Boston. Kuritzkes is currently Chair of the ACTG Network. The LOC officially opened in January 2012 with Robertson at the helm.
“Lauren has assembled a great team in the in LOC at BWH and did a terrific job orchestrating the smooth transition of the ACTG grant from Social & Scientific Systems to BWH last spring,” Kuritzkes says. “This transition led to a number of efficiencies in the fiscal management of this very large and complicated research grant and substantial savings to the Network.”
Robertson hails from Vermont. She came to Massachusetts to attend Assumption College, originally with the idea of becoming a speech pathologist in mind. An economics professor sparked her interest in pursuing a business and economics degree. Upon graduation from Assumption, she took a position with a property management company in Worcester.
“I knew immediately that the corporate world was not for me,” Robertson says. “I began taking classes to go back to school for speech pathology. I also accepted an entry level research administration position at Children’s Hospital Boston as a way to get my foot in the door so I would have a connection there once I finished my speech pathology degree.”
Robertson’s role at Children’s exposed her to the research world as she ordered supplies and processed check requests for Neurology and Immunology laboratories. She was also introduced to pre- and post-award grants management. As she worked and took classes, the clinical hours required to become a speech pathologist began weighing on her mind as it meant she would have to stop working at some point to complete her coursework. This fact along with the reality that she enjoyed working in research caused her to contemplate a new career path.
“I knew when I accepted the position at Children’s that there was no room for growth and that they only expected me to stay a year or so,” Robertson says. “I began applying for research jobs at other Boston hospitals and came across the one in Dan’s lab. I knew it was a risk because I had only been doing this for a year, but he took a chance on me.”
Working for Kuritzkes, Robertson moved deeper into grants work, managing her own portfolio and learning about the ACTG. After two years working for him, she accepted the role as Administrative Manager of Research for the Department of Medicine.
“It was exciting to move into this position because 68 percent of BWH’s research portfolio is within the Department of Medicine,” she says.
Working under BWH’s Senior Director of Administration and Research, Gus Cervini, Robertson split her time primarily between two tasks – reducing the deficit in the DOM’s research portfolios and managing the research portfolio of Cardiologist and Chair of the DOM Joseph Loscalzo, MD, PhD.
“I investigated many different research problems and served as a facilitator and guide for when divisions within the Department of Medicine faced difficulties,” Robertson says.
Recognizing her growth in research and grants management within the three years working for him, Cervini told Robertson in 2011 about the creation of the Leadership and Operations Center for the ACTG at BWH and the newly crafted position of Executive Director.
“I was hired around the same time as Lauren at BWH in 2006 and I remembered her positive attitude and willingness to roll up her sleeves to solve problems when she initially worked as a financial analyst for Dan’s lab,” Cervini says. “Then she came to work for me and she organized Dr. Loscalzo’s research portfolio quickly, giving us the opportunity to have her work on other research grants within the department as well. Lauren also balanced work with pursuing two master’s degrees. It was clear she was sharp and I was tremendously proud of her – not just her skillset, but also the approach she brings to work. Grants management is complicated and it takes someone who has the technical expertise and the cultural know-how of working with a group of people. Lauren has both – she knows how to manage a grant and all the regulations that come with that, but she also knows how to navigate this community. When I learned of the ACTG position at BWH, I told her about it because I knew this job with me was only a temporary stop along the way for Lauren.”
Pregnant with her first child at the time, Robertson thought carefully about applying.
“It really caused me to think about my future. On one hand, the Department of Medicine had been really good to me. But this position with the ACTG was a great opportunity to advance my career,” she says. “I enjoyed working for Dan years before and I thought the ACTG’s program and mission were great. It seemed like an exciting challenge so I decided to pursue the opportunity.”
She met with Kuritzkes weeks before giving birth to her son Aiden and officially applied for the Executive Director position while on maternity leave. Robertson was offered the position and began transitioning from her role in the DOM to her new job within the ACTG in December 2011.
As Executive Director of the ACTG’s Leadership and Operations Center, Robertson manages staff who handle all aspects of the Network’s very large grant from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), including contracts, finances, meeting planning and communications.
“I am responsible for managing the regulatory or administrative aspects of the grant so that our investigators and site staff can pursue the ACTG’s mission,” Robertson says. “I handle the day-to-day activities of the grant so that our researchers can focus on the science. Every day is different. I take any question that I am asked throughout the day and I make sure it gets answered by the right person.”
Her familiarity collaborating across entities, as she did with the many divisions within BWH’s Department of Medicine, prepared Robertson for interacting with each of the ACTG’s sites around the world.
“The site interaction is one of my favorite parts of my job,” she says. “I’m a grants administrator by trade and I was fortunate to grow quickly into a new aspect of administration. I have enjoyed learning how the international ACTG sites operate because they function slightly differently than our domestic sites. It’s exciting; I am learning the program at a new global level.”
In September 2012, Robertson was on hand in a much greater role when the ACTG, as a whole, underwent its competitive renewal for NIH funding. She credits the early submission of the application to her experiences in research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Department of Medicine. Robertson feels that position gave her the tools and opportunities to build relationships with key players in BWH’s upper management, like Barbara Bierer, MD, Senior Vice President for Research.
“Lauren’s experience working on research grants within the Brigham and Women’s Department of Medicine prepared her to manage the ACTG’s diverse grant portfolio and the submission of the competitive renewal application ahead of schedule last fall,” Bierer says. “She has assembled a dynamic team at the ACTG’s Leadership and Operations Center who work well with the clinical and research sites in the U.S. and internationally. We, at the Brigham, are happy to support the ACTG to fulfill its mission of investigating and optimizing therapeutics for HIV/AIDS and HIV-associated infections in adults.”
“Getting the grant out was huge and hearing how satisfied the sites were was great,” Robertson says. “Establishing the LOC this past year and a half has gone well. There is always uneasiness with change, but I didn’t hear about too many problems and that was good because my goal was for things to transition seamlessly. I really acknowledge the backing we had from Dr. Bierer. BWH was behind us 100 percent. They are extremely dedicated and provided us with a lot of resources to ensure our transition was successful.”
When she is not working, Robertson enjoys spending time with her husband and son, who is now nearly two-years-old. An athlete at heart, she loves skiing and soccer and looks forward to participating in both the Walk for Hunger and AIDS Walk Boston this spring. When asked about the future of the ACTG, she hopes to continue to make site operations easier for all staff so that research is never hindered by red tape.
“I would like to implement more training opportunities for sites as we go forward so they all understand how funds flow and are allocated,” Robertson says. “Our job at the LOC is to always strive to make things easier for the ACTG’s sites and I truly respect and appreciate the team I have at the LOC. Everyone has really come together and we are all valuable in our own way and that is what has contributed to our success thus far.”