Speaking and Thinking Across Disciplinary Boundaries

Frances Leslie, PhD, Director, Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center, School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine (1999-2004)

    • June 14, 2007

The Problem: Research to elucidate the complex causes of tobacco use, dependence and relapse—and the attributes of effective interventions—requires a transdisciplinary approach and the involvement of practitioners. Furthermore, once research has been conducted, the findings need to be translated and communicated to policy-makers, practitioners and the public.

Approach: The National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have funded eight university-based Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers (TTURCs) around the country to facilitate a transdisciplinary approach to the full spectrum of basic and applied research on tobacco use to reduce its burden of illness.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has provided support for the Partners With Tobacco Use Research Centers program, a collaborative effort to help communicate and translate the results and implications of the work of the TTURCs. RWJF's interest in transdisciplinary work grew out of the "New Partnerships and Paradigms for Tobacco Prevention Research" conference — held at the Sundance Conference Center in Utah May 6–9, 1997 which led first to the Tobacco Etiology Research Network (TERN), the first "transdisciplinary" research network RWJF has funded.

Grantee background: Frances Leslie, PhD, is a neuropharmacologist studying how exposures to drugs of abuse (heroin, cocaine, alcohol and inhalants) affect the developing brain and adult behavior. She integrates experimental approaches from molecular biology to animal behavior to determine the effects of abused drugs at various stages of brain development.

Grantee perspective: While her work has always been transdisciplinary and collaborative, her experience with the TTURC at the University of California, Irvine, extended her collaborations into areas in which she had not previously worked. Most significantly, its focus on tobacco use among youth led Leslie to ask what was going on in the brains of adolescents.

Results: One question being addressed by the TTURC was whether nicotine represents a “gateway” drug, leading to the abuse of more dangerous ones. Answering this question required collaborations between epidemiologists analyzing data from human populations on how early use of tobacco influenced later abuse of “harder” drugs, and neuroscientists like Leslie studying how exposing animals to nicotine early in adolescence affected their sensitivity to drugs like cocaine in adulthood.

This collaborative work had “a huge impact on my research,” she says. “Before, I would have never thought to go to the clinical literature in search of correlations with what I was finding in animal models. Now, I'm comfortable correlating basic animal research with epidemiological data and thinking in terms of using animal models to test things that are difficult to do clinically.”

This led to collaborative work and funding in other new areas, such as the degree to which tobacco additives increase the sensitivity of the adolescent brain to nicotine. Researchers engaged in laboratory work and in searching through documents made public as part of the government's suits against tobacco companies.

Even farther afield from her original research interests, Leslie has collaborated with colleagues on modeling the economic outcomes of increasing taxes on tobacco products, and with experts in marketing, advertising, psychology and social behavior on how changes in the brains of adolescents influence their vulnerability to tobacco advertising. The results of these collaborations have been published in journals read by non-biomedical scientists.

RWJF funding for the Partners With Tobacco Use Research Centers program at Irvine changed Leslie's attitudes toward communications. At first, she was reluctant to devote precious time and energy to learning how to communicate research findings to audiences other than other scientists. RWJF support enabled the TTURC to hire a communications professional to work with researchers to show them how to translate and communicate their findings in ways that are easily understood by lay audiences.

“The goal of the TTURC was to have people look at old scientific issues in new ways, to consider their policy implications, and to communicate our findings to audiences beyond the ‘usual suspects,'” says Leslie. “I think that our center demonstrated that this can be done. However, it didn't just happen. It took a lot of hard work to understand one another's research, and a lot of time to meet, talk, learn each other's languages, and find common ground for collaborative work.”

RWJF perspective:The 1997 Sundance Conference set two related priorities for research that might produce breakthroughs in understanding and changing trajectories of tobacco use and addiction, according to Tracy Orleans, PhD, RWJF senior scientist. First, the need for more integrative approaches to the science of tobacco use and nicotine addiction, and second, the need for need for much more intentional efforts to translate research results into policy and practice.

“The resulting TTURCs and Partners with Tobacco Use Research Centers program addressed both needs—accelerating scientific discovery and its application or impact,” says Orleans.

“New modes of collaboration and communication were the hallmark of these efforts. The TTURCs were ground-breaking in their support of truly “trans-” versus “cross-” disciplinary research collaborations. They gave researchers from multiple disciplines (including genetics and neuroscience, child development and behavioral medicine, anthropology and economics) a unique opportunity to break out of their usual academic silos to learn to speak and think across disciplinary boundaries.”

In addition, says Orleans, “Through the partners program, many conducted their first-ever policy research studies, and learned for the first time how to ‘give their research a voice' by actively translating their results for key audiences—not just other researchers but policy-makers, practitioners and the public. Many TTURC scientists will tell you that these experiences transformed their careers.”