Desire to learn fuels Biostatistics’ Irby

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Lisa_Irby_webIn one of his many Yogi-isms, baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said life is a learning experience, but only if you learn.

Lisa Irby has tried to take advantage of the learning experiences available to her since she joined UAB as a data-entry specialist in the Department of Biostatistics in 1996.

Irby used these experiences to work her way up the ranks in 16 years to program coordinator in the Secondary Prevention of Small Subcortical Stroke Statistical Center — a large National Institutes of Health-sponsored study under way at UAB and in more than 60 different medical centers in the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe. Her central responsibility to keep the database clean and correct requires daily contact with site coordinators in North and Central America.

Irby’s knowledge helps her navigate rough waters, and her attention to detail and the ease and grace with which she handles her responsibilities are a few of the reasons she was selected UAB Employee of the Month for June.

“Lisa is the glue that holds the study together,” says Leslie McClure, Ph.D., associate professor and director of graduate studies in biostatistics and the principal investigator on the SPS3 Statistical Center. “Lisa is the first line of defense for study coordinators who have difficulty with data issues and often are frustrated about some aspect of their data. We often receive compliments from the study sites about how helpful and warm Lisa is.”

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Irby interacts daily with the study’s programming group to ensure that the data entry and Web-based systems meet the technical requirements and make sense to the end-users, who generally are data entry technicians or study coordinators. It might sound trivial, but Irby has had to learn technical programming-speak to communicate across disciplines.

“The study is coming to an end, and we’re in the process of closing the sites,” Irby says. “The closer we get to the end, the more cleaning we’re doing on the database. Closing the sites has proven to be a bigger responsibility than keeping them open in many ways.”

Strong communicator

Irby also has to work regularly with the study’s statistical team to ensure that reports distributed internally and externally make sense. She also has to ensure that data queries are meaningfully communicated to the study sites. This isn’t always easy, and it requires someone with strong communication skills, says Al Bartolucci, Ph.D., professor of Biostatistics.

“Obviously Lisa is a superb data-handler, but she also has the personality to interact in the most pleasant way with others,” Bartolucci says.

Former biostatistics Professor Christopher Coffey, Ph.D., says Irby’s abilities go far beyond her customer support and organizational skills. He says Irby doesn’t settle for status quo in any tasks.

Coffey specifically remembers how uncomfortable Irby once was when it came to presenting information on the study at investigator meetings. But she continued to work on her public speaking and has become very good, he says. “She has consistently tried to better herself,” Coffey says.

Irby has made learning a goal during her UAB tenure. She has learned new software, statistical programming and even more about the disease the study is examining.

She also has been working on a degree in health information management in the School of Health Professions for the past four years — while working full-time. Neither her grades nor her work has suffered, but Irby admits it can be a tough balancing act. She says her husband Melvin is a big reason she has been able to pursue her degree.

“I’m fortunate to have a great husband who always is there and willing to help me,” Irby says. “He’s my support system.”

Irby also appreciates McClure’s encouragement to attain her degree and that he has worked with her to make it happen.

“Leslie was instrumental in pushing me to go back to school, and I really appreciate that,” Irby says. “She’s very encouraging and has been an inspiration and pushed me.

“She’s always said she has a lot of faith in me,” Irby says. “She tells me I’m a good worker, but I think what she’s done to help me has been awesome.”

McClure says Irby’s dedication and determination are a positive influence on everyone she encounters.

“I am continually impressed by her dedication to her friends, family and co-workers,” McClure says. “Lisa is a generous person who constantly gives of herself to help others. She inspires me to want to be a better person, and I know she has the same effect on everyone around her.”