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Spotlight on: Kemba Robinson, BioPharma’s Friendly Resource for Drug Study Participants

Dr. John Oldenhof

When volunteers walk through the front door of BioPharma Services for a clinical drug trial screening, they’re not greeted with an intimidating laboratory atmosphere or scientists wearing white lab coats. Instead, they meet Kemba Robinson, whose friendly face and warm personality calm participants’ nerves, serving as a gentle introduction to the study.

Robinson is the screening receptionist at BioPharma, a full-service contract research organization (CRO) in Ontario, Canada, that assists clients with Phase I to BE/BA clinical drug development programs. In an environment where such significant research takes place, she’s a breath of fresh air for anyone approaching her desk with trepidation about participating in a drug study.

Her gracious demeanor has been vital since the pandemic. Robinson says there’s been an uptick in the number of new participants due to people losing their jobs or getting their work hours cut. BioPharma pays drug study participants anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, depending on the trial length and the tests performed, so interest tends to increase when the economy wanes.

“They’re coming in for their first time to participate in a clinical trial, and that entails testing pharmaceutical medication, and it comes with some risks,” Robinson says. “I try to encourage them not to be nervous and remind them that everything we do will be explained to them from A to Z.”

A Natural Presence

Robinson came to BioPharma in 2013 to complete her practicum after finishing school to be a medical laboratory technician. Since then, she’s worked as an administrative assistant, clinical research technician and screening receptionist for the company, which she describes as a welcoming, familial place to work.

“We’re always getting together. If there’s one thing BioPharma staff knows how to do, it’s get together with food,” she says, adding that she enjoys baking and is known to bring cinnamon rolls to the office from time to time. “I’ve had to reject food many, many times, or I would have gained 20 pounds.”

Robinson dreamed of being a doctor when she was growing up, and while she hasn’t been able to pursue that goal just yet — she put her duties as the mother of two children ahead of her career goals — she hasn’t ruled it out. She completed her medical laboratory technician education when her children were in high school, which led her to BioPharma.

Robinson feels grateful to find such purpose in her work and takes great pride in her role, which has proven to be an essential part of every BioPharma participant’s journey through the drug study process.

“We do work here that is needed and is necessary,” she says.

With her jovial tone and an accent that can transport you to a tropical beach — Robinson is originally from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the southern Caribbean — it’s no wonder she loves to listen to the happy sounds of reggae music when she gets to work each morning.

“I always play reggae in the morning — music just sets the tone for the whole day,” she says. “And if I’m in a good mood when I’m at my desk, I think everybody that comes in through the door will be in that good mood.”

She’s sometimes reminded that her spirit isn’t always as contagious as she’d like. With as many as 80 participants arriving each day for a screening — that number has decreased by about half due to pandemic-related protocols — there’s bound to be some challenging situations. Robinson recalls one morning when she asked a gentleman to wait outside for a few minutes while she finished up with another volunteer and was met with an irritated attitude.

“He was not pleased that I asked him to wait,” she says. “But I didn’t take that on; I just brushed it aside. I just asked him to read through the paperwork and let me know when he was ready, and after that, he settled down.

“I can’t always react to everybody’s bad mood because that heightens the aggression, and that’s not a good thing for the rest of the day. … You never know what’s going on in a person’s home life. They might be stressed, they might be worried about money and stuff like that, so I try to be as understanding as possible.”

Company Culture From the Front Desk

That positive attitude and presence come in handy when she has to discuss some of the more uncomfortable aspects of drug studies with participants, such as needles, catheters and the like, depending on what type of drug is in development. Thankfully, the recruiting department has already briefed participants about the process before they make it to Robinson’s desk. Participating in a drug trial can be a fairly involved, complex experience, especially when it comes to eligibility.

To be respectful of a participant’s time, BioPharma ensures a doctor sees them on screening day — something many clinical research organizations don’t normally do until the check-in. Robinson says this is an important differentiating factor that volunteers — many of whom also participate in other studies at other CROs — appreciate about BioPharma.

“Let’s say you come in and there’s something in your medical history or your ECG (electrocardiogram) or your urine test, wouldn’t you like to know the day of, as opposed to waiting until check-in to learn from the doctor that you can’t participate in this trial?” she says. “If I were a volunteer, I’d want to know the day of if I’m eligible or not because these people work and a lot of them have booked the time off thinking they’re going to be in this study.”

Because many participants often rely on getting paid for the clinical trial, Robinson says it’s hard to break the news when a person is ineligible. That typically happens when screening tests, such as body mass index (BMI), urine analysis, ECGs, blood pressure or something else, are out of range.

During this critical step in a drug trial, these situations demonstrate Robinson’s value as the face of BioPharma.

“A lot of times, I’ll have to talk them down (from the bad news),” she says. “Like, ‘it’s OK, you can try again. It might not have worked out for this study today, but you never know. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that you’re not taking this particular trial.’ I do feel for them because the COVID pandemic has not been easy on a lot of people, so I do feel for them.

“But we are a customer-oriented, customer-based, customer service industry. We try to make everybody feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible.”

That’s part of the approachable, inclusive culture at BioPharma, a friendly and collaborative community that starts at Robinson’s desk.

“I try my best,” she says, with a warm smile and reggae tunes playing. “I try my best.”

BioPharma Services is a contract research organization committed to delivering excellence in early-stage clinical trials, which helps to provide affordable and safe medicines to patients in need. Getting a new drug to the market is a process that can take many years. BioPharma helps companies ensure that drugs being developed are safe and effective. Take a look at our Frequently Asked Questions and Volunteer pages to learn more about how you can become involved by participating in a clinical trial.

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