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Sharon Sickles blends research, animal care roles

Sickles has always loved caring for animals, creating things, solving puzzles, meeting challenges, and leaving places cleaner, safer or better than she found them. It seems she is optimally employed. Her post as University Veterinarian and Director of Research Compliance plays to every one of those affinities.

A Binghamton alumna who earned her Ph.D. in biological sciences here in 1987, Sickles joined the University on September 10 last year, the day before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Since then she has been helping the University and its researchers to navigate a challenging regulatory environment that has become even more complex in the wake of September 11.

Sickles is the first person to hold the combined veterinarian and compliance positions, and as such she oversees the University’s efforts to protect the integrity of its research programs, which last year topped $23.5 million in external funding. She ensures the University’s compliance with the host of federal, state, local and institutional rules that apply to laboratory animal care and non-animal related research project protocols and designs.

For Sickles that job means developing a culture of compliance across the University’s 35 departments and six schools. “Compliance is not just making sure that you’re upholding regulations and policies because of the threat of being cited for failure to do so. It’s about respecting and developing policies and regulations that improve and enhance the work environment for students, professional staff and faculty members,” Sickles said.

“A big part of my mission here is taking a good look at the safety and security of buildings, laboratories and research programs to ensure the integrity of our research.”

Stephen Gilje, associate vice president for research, cites Sickles’ breadth of understanding of the diverse issues involved in research compliance. “Her presence enables the coordination of compliance, regulatory and safety issues and supports the continued expansion of our research programs,” he said.

By the age of seven, Sickles had decided to become a vet, and, like about 80 percent of veterinary school graduates, originally intended to go into small animal practice, she said. Instead, after using her Ph.D. from BU to work her way through the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in research jobs, and accruing additional education and experience as a biologist, microbiologist and physiologist, Sickles developed a strong interest in and commitment to research.

Her position at Binghamton is ideal, she said, because it allows her to pursue two of her passions — animal health care and research — in an environment conducive to lifelong learning, something else to which she is strongly committed. This isn’t the first time that Sickles has combined veterinary practice with research. Just prior to coming to the University, Sickles served as the director of research and staff veterinarian for a company in Waverly, N.Y. that maintains its own colonies of cats and dogs for research — research that is exclusively for the benefit of animals. All the work at that company is directed at developing animal health care products, most specifically vaccines to protect cats and dogs from deadly modern-day contagions.

While her role as the University veterinarian means caring for sick or injured laboratory animals — which at Binghamton means mice, rats, birds and rabbits — her role as a compliance officer is also concerned with animal welfare, she noted.

“Part of my job is to see that laboratory animals are well cared for. That, according to their species, they are properly maintained in a proper setting, and to ensure that, if there is ever a need for a surgical procedure, that it is justified and that appropriate analgesia and anesthesia are provided.”

Sickles works in collaboration with Environmental Health and Safety and serves on many committees, among them the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) — a committee required at every institution that uses animals in research. All research or instructional use of vertebrate animals conducted by University faculty, staff and students, regardless of the source of funding or location of animals, must be reviewed and approved by the IACUC, and approval must be obtained prior to initiation of the activity.

Sickles also serves on the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), the Radiation Safety Committee (RSC), and the Laboratory Safety Committee (LSC).

Sickles supervises Robert Snyder, animal care coordinator and the University’s five full-time animal care workers. The University is accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, a status shared by 640 research institutions in 18 countries. In the scientific community, this accreditation shows that an institution is serious about setting, achieving and maintaining high standards for animal care and use.

Sickles shares that commitment and in her role as a compliance officer hopes to be seen by faculty researchers not as an obstacle to make their lives more difficult but as a resource.

“In this highly regulatory climate, it’s almost impossible for any one person to be an expert on everything,” she said. “But in those areas in which I might not be expert, I can certainly serve as a good source of referral.

As such, she invites faculty and staff to approach her with any research-related concerns they might have.

“We’re living in a world in which we just can’t hide our heads and hope these kinds of issues will go away,” she said. “And I’m not a person who has ever been able to turn my head and walk away when something can be done to improve a situation.”

The most recent evidence of that might be a matching-funds proposal for about $420,000 submitted by Sickles to the National Institutes of Health last month. If approved, the project would mean almost $850,000 in improvements to the University’s animal care facilities and equipment.

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