This article was originally published on September 24, 2010.
The term "translational research" encompasses a huge swath of disciplines and much of the continuum between basic science and clinical application. But one factor common to scientists working in all parts of the translational realm is the ability to truly collaborate with people across disciplines -- not just consult with scientists in other disciplines and then return to your own comfortable space and work independently.
"Transdisciplinarity is what we're aiming towards, and it's literally coming out of your burrow. The other scientist comes out of her burrow, the third comes out of her burrow, and you actually talk. ... You continue together, you create a new intellectual space, begin to set up a lexicon, begin to share the best of your theories, begin to share the best of your analytic strategies," says Sarah Gehlert, professor of racial and ethnic diversity at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
Gehlert was one of four panelists in a workshop put together by Science Careers at the 2009 annual meeting of AAAS, the publisher of CTSciNet and Science Careers. Links to audio files of the whole workshop, and links to each of the individual speakers, are at the bottom of this article.
Fellow panelist D. James Surmeier, professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, described how collaborating with researchers in other areas pushed his research in new directions.
"The part of the brain that I work on is the basal ganglia. It's the part of the brain that's involved in Parkinson's disease," says Surmeier. "[For] the first paragraph of all of our NIH grant proposals, I would write this boilerplate saying, 'We're studying this part of the brain because it's involved in Parkinson's disease.' Then we would just go off and do our basic science thing and not really think so much about translation."
"But I started talking to clinical colleagues ... about how they were treating patients and started thinking about it myself and started talking to colleagues nationally to try and identify what the big questions were. What kept them from curing this disease that was afflicting a million people? And [we] rapidly came to the conclusion that we didn't understand the etiology of the disease. We didn't understand the basic mechanisms of the disease. And so we said, 'Gee, why don't we look at the question again?' But we looked at it from a different perspective, from my sort of membrane biophysics cellular perspective and asked, 'Is there something about the cells that are affected in the disease that's different that we can see that maybe my colleagues with different eyes can't see?' And within about 6 or 7 months, we had an answer."
Guillermo Ameer is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. He also has a joint appointment in the medical school's Department of Surgery. "Transdisciplinarity [is] very important because we all speak different languages. I'm an engineer, and I would write a certain problem in a certain way. My vascular collaborator, she would write that same problem in a completely different [way]," Ameer says. "We all speak differently, but we need to be able to communicate to each other. ... There's a very steep learning curve initially, but after a while we both start to learn from each other. We feed on each other. I start to understand a little bit more where she comes from. She can start to understand a little more where I come from."
For basic scientists looking to think of their research in a more applied context, it's important to learn about what's going on at your center, particularly in disease-related research and in the medical school, if your university has one. "I think that many entering Ph.D. students ... don't learn about translational research until they've already chosen a research lab," says David Engman, a professor of pathology and director of Northwestern University's Medical Scientist Training Program. "But I would suggest that in almost every field, there are different kinds of activities, seminars, and programs associated with a large center, such as the Alzheimer's disease center or Parkinson's center, cancer center, and you can go as a Ph.D. student even to clinical conferences. ... And you can certainly learn about the clinical diseases that your own basic research is founded upon. You could ... add a clinician to your thesis committees. ... There are lots of ways to start to learn about the more applied side of the basic research that you might be doing."
Check out the audio files below to hear how each of the panelists got into their area of research, listen to a discussion about starting companies to translate basic research into practical applications, and listen to our panelists' advice for getting a PI to read your e-mail asking for a postdoc position.
Kate Travis is the editor of CTSciNet.