April 2016: A.J. Carr

A.J. Carr, Clinical Trials Research Assistant in the Division of Infectious Diseases, seems to have a tendency for understatement. “I like helping people,” he says, but his dedication to making a difference in people’s lives runs much deeper than that. Mr. Carr is currently working with the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEU), one of nine NIH-designated sites in the country conducting clinical trials of novel therapies and medicines for diseases like tuberculosis, H5N8, and yellow fever. Mr. Carr’s journey to this exciting and groundbreaking team has followed an unusual and inspiring path.

Originally from Iowa City, Mr. Carr was no stranger to the world of medicine. His mother was a procedure nurse for 30 years at UIHC, retiring from the Center for Digestive Diseases just two years ago. Medicine as a career for Mr. Carr wasn’t necessarily his first choice, though. In October 2001, Mr. Carr joined the U.S. Marine Corps and over the next four years he would serve multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Besides many decorations, he also received his first medical training in the service, the kind all those who see combat receive, skills meant to save a fellow soldier’s life when seconds count, like administering CPR or stopping bleeding. In time, Mr. Carr was promoted to Police Sergeant and became responsible for logistics for 350 Marines, including their housing and movement of supplies.

After his discharge and acclimation to life back in Iowa City in 2005, Mr. Carr decided to study healthcare in a more formal environment. He says he chose Kaplan University because he wanted to earn a degree quickly and “get right into the workforce.” But even before he finished his degree, Mr. Carr was already getting hands-on training in phlebotomy working at Biotest Plasma Center and volunteering at the Iowa City Free Medical Clinic.

It’s not clear where Mr. Carr found the hours in the day between 2008 and 2010, but somehow he also found time to be a volunteer firefighter for the North Liberty Fire Department. He admits finding the balance in his schedule in those days was “very hard.” But here, Mr. Carr again demonstrated his commitment to helping people. His knowledge of healthcare deepened as he picked up more EMS skills, even studying under an instructor who is also a nurse in UIHC’s ER department.

After finishing his Associates degree in Applied Science, Mr. Carr quickly landed a position with the UIHC in the Surgery Specialty Clinic as a Certified Medical Assistant, then moved over to the Clinical Research Unit (CRU). He says those first years were “anything but slow,” but he really liked his coworkers and learned a lot quickly. “I was always worried I would not be recognized for the work I did, but I was always treated like a part of the team. . . . The doctors always made time to explain what they needed and went out of their way to teach me the skills I needed to succeed.”

By 2013, those years of experience eventually earned him a promotion to Research Assistant and a position on the VTEU, where he works as a vaccinator and specimen processor for all the trials the unit conducts. Dr. Patricia Winokur is the principal investigator for the VTEU. She says, “When you find the right person anything is possible and A. J. is the right person.” She calls Mr. Carr “a morale booster.” His former and current coworkers have similar praise. “A. J. can quickly jump in and help me identify a problem and resolve it quickly,” says Dan Zhao, RN, Clinical Research Coordinator. Nicole Gerot, Research Assistant, agrees: “He’s a problem solver, incredibly dependable. He’s willing to experiment with new things.” Elaine Macclure, RN, Clinical Research Assistant, says that Mr. Carr “was always a ‘go-to’ guy for difficult patient situations” and that he was “a happy presence” on the CRU. Everyone cites Mr. Carr’s good nature and affability; they are all glad to know him.

Outside of work, Mr. Carr’s commitment to helping others continues to guide him. For nearly six years, he has been a gymnastics coach at the Iowa Gym-Nest. He works with girls, aged 6 to 18. Mr. Carr says that he is rewarded by helping “kids overcome fear and learn new skills.” Two of his gymnasts just successfully competed at the state level and are on their way to regionals. Mr. Carr also coaches one of his two daughters; the other is a diver.

Mr. Carr hopes to continue soaking up the knowledge of those around him in the VTEU and offering his best efforts. “It is truly the best job I have ever had. . . . I love working for the VTEU; it is truly a family doing cutting-edge research,” Mr. Carr says. He would like to become more involved in the development of protocols. “The amazing thing about these studies is the collaborating with so many different areas in and out of the hospital. . . . If you want to do research then the University of Iowa is where to go!” And if you do research at the University of Iowa, it seems you should have A. J. Carr on your team.

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