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Peer Review: Personal Involvement Is Rewarding

by Diane Rader O'Connor

When cancer survivors hear the words “consumer peer reviewer,” they might think that only survivors with a strong scientific background qualify to review research grant proposals. In fact, consumers have an equal seat at the table with some of the nation’s foremost scientists, researchers, and physicians.

While attending an ovarian cancer patient advocacy meeting in 2005, I was given an official-looking folder entitled “Consumer Peer Review for Department of Defense (DOD).” I wasn’t sure how I might contribute, but I was surprised and encouraged to learn that, as an ovarian cancer survivor with a high school education, I met the minimum requirements for serving as a consumer peer reviewer.

After securing sponsorship of the POCRC, completing the application, and undergoing a telephone interview, I was selected to serve as a consumer reviewer. A large box containing scientific proposals arrived at my home. My assignment was to read all portions of the assigned proposals, focusing specifically on the “disease relevance” section, and comment online approximately two weeks before the review meeting.

This was a rather daunting task for a liberal arts major, but with each proposal I gained more confidence in my ability to understand the gist of the research. Experienced consumer reviewers were assigned to be our mentors, so we novices could ask questions any time by email or phone.

The actual peer review meeting was held in the Washington D.C. area. I was one of three consumer reviewers seated around a large boardroom table alongside highly-respected scientists, researchers, and physicians. In the shadow of this scientific brainpower, I momentarily doubted any contribution I could possibly make. However, I learned quickly that each member of the panel carried equal weight and was respected for their opinions.

We survivors were there for a reason and our presence was highly affirmed by the other panel members. Many of them expressed their thanks to us for our participation. They were impressed that we had waded through countless pages of scientific proposals and were able to comment intelligently on them. They also praised the DOD for requiring the active involvement of survivors. Seeing our faces and hearing our stories added the human element to the peer review meeting.

This was a powerful experience for me, and one that I highly recommend to other survivors. I was able to read cutting-edge research, meet deeply-committed researchers, and experience the synergistic effect of survivor-scientist collaboration. It became even clearer to me that we survivors need to keep working diligently to secure more DOD funding for innovative ovarian cancer research.

I realized that we are fortunate enough to have the DOD’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program only because of the relentless work of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA) and other dedicated organizations. In fact, from 1997 to 2005, almost 60 percent of the program’s reviewers were nominated by OCNA or one of its Partner Members. Having experienced the peer review process, my commitment is even stronger. We all need to join “forces” to augment our advocacy and support for the DOD program.

Diane Rader O’Connor has been involved in advocacy since 2002, when she attended her first OCNA conference shortly after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She is an OCNA board member and participates in the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Oregon and SW Washington.

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