Many IRB leaders struggle with attracting young professionals to the human research protection field, but few would dream of heading to elementary schools to groom the next generation of IRB members or experts.

Yet that’s exactly the approach taken by Armida Ayala, PHD, MHA, director of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California IRB in Pasadena.

Ayala started a mentoring program at the IRB in 2013 called the Bridge Expose Advance Mentoring Program (BEAM). It was designed to select youth and young adults for mentoring in the enterprise of advancing human research ethics. The program has trained more than 25 young people and resulted in two people becoming members of the IRB, three hired as employees, and 14 still being mentored.

“For example, I work with our internal outreach program, and I had been mentoring and evaluating young girls from ages 10 years old,” Ayala says. “Some have been participating in research, so we picked some from that pool and trained one to be a board member.”

A young woman who now is an IRB member had begun as a participant in a study. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) while still a teenager. “We’re looking for talent, so we follow these kids since they were little,” Ayala says. “We have a program of mothers and daughters learning together, and we meet them at age 10 and follow them until they’re 23.”

BEAM involves mentors from the IRB, who are paired with the young prospects for a six-month period. It is intensive, with the chief purpose of placing young people in research protection jobs, Ayala says.

“We can be mentoring them for a while, as we did with a young woman I recently recruited,” Ayala says. “She just got accepted at the university and is getting a master’s degree in social sciences.”

Ayala asked the woman if she would be interested in being trained to be an IRB member, and she agreed. “She’s a featured poster child for that strategy — she’s done a tremendous job.”

Another strategy is to seek out talented young people at local universities and invite them to learn more about the IRB. “We focus on activities like leadership training and career guidance,” Ayala says.

Young people mentored through BEAM sometimes are asked to use an app at via.org where they can take a survey about themselves to learn their top five strengths, she says.

“What the app does is give you a free survey to identify your strengths with exercises about doing the right thing,” Ayala says.

BEAM has leadership and character training specifically designed for the program. For instance, participants receive books about research ethics, including The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot.

“We give them these things to inspire them and to show how leaders have made ethical decisions in the past,” Ayala says. “Then we work on character development activities and give them training on how to handle various situations.”

For example, there is a character strength exercise with three-to-five-minute discussions. The idea is to encourage people to speak up when they have a question or comment. They can practice talking, using a speaker cone as a visual aid, and they also can go to their mentors for guidance, she says.

BEAM is about identifying young mentees’ character and working with them on the skills necessary to discuss ethical issues and to ask questions, she says.

It’s necessary for IRBs to do what they can to recruit and mentor younger IRB professionals, as many IRB directors and leaders will retire in coming years, Ayala says.

“I want to bring in young people and train them because they’re the next generation,” she says.