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Transdisciplinary and Translational Research

Abstract and Keywords

This entry provides an overview of the nature of transdisciplinary and translational priorities in the context of changing forms of research and assessments of the relationship of research to societal impact. It first describes shifts away from single disciplinary to more integrative disciplinary approaches to science and discusses emerging forms of integrative research, distinguishing and illustrating multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches. It then turns to describing the social forces behind the acceleration of science into service, illustrating what are referred to as translational gaps and efforts to bridge them. Within social work, methods attentive to adaptation for diverse settings, organizational dissemination and implementation, and community partnership models have become prominent. The entry concludes with attention to the development of an educational pipeline that prepares professionals as well as researchers for capable, confident participation into this environment of transdisciplinary and translational approaches.

Keywords: research, translational, transdisciplinary, interprofessional, evaluation, implementation, collaboration

Shifts in the ways that science is being undertaken and marshalled toward social change argue for a new kind of professional competence . . . stimulat(ing) reflectiveness regarding social work’s preparedness to support and indeed amplify a robust culture of high impact science . . .

(Nurius & Kemp, 2012, p. 548)

Science is no longer monopolized by any one discipline. Nor can many pressing social and environmental problems be solved by a single discipline, field of study, profession, or sector. Increasingly, science is collaborative, based in partnerships—across disciplines and with community stakeholders—focused on more effectively tackling challenging real-world problems. It increasing involves discipline-spanning approaches to a wide range of societal, population, and community problems. Emerging efforts focus on building sustainable bridges across disciplines (in order to develop more complete solutions), across phases of research (where findings too often do not progress from discovery to delivery—for instance, from basic research to applied research to implementation in usual settings), and between academic researchers and a wide range of community stakeholders (Nurius & Kemp, 2013). This growing emphasis on transdisciplinary and translational research is evident across scientific levels: from federal research funders such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation and on through major foundations, nonprofit organizations, and local public sectors seeking to bridge the “know-do” gap (Lynch, 2006) and enhance collective impact (Kania & Kramer, 2011; Social Research Unit, 2011).

This changing “scientific marketplace” has significant implications for social work and its potential for impacting the problems and issues that are its central concerns. In a 2011 Invited Presidential Address to the Society of Social Work and Research, King Davis urged the profession to assertively strengthen its contributions to and its ability to make good use of 21st-century transformations in the forms, exchanges, and applications of research. Similar imperatives are reflected in calls to (re)shape social work science (Soydan, 2012), develop the transdisciplinary tools necessary for progress on intransigent social and health problems (Gehlert et al., 2010), strengthen social work’s ability to translate research to more efficiently meet practice needs (Palinkas & Soydan, 2012), and strategically focus social work science and service toward solving pressing “grand” challenges (Uehara et al., 2013).

In many respects the profession is already oriented toward these emerging research and practice imperatives. It has long emphasized ecological frameworks that acknowledge multiple levels of influence, the importance of history and context, and the complex, interlocking systems shaping research and practice. From its earliest professional beginnings, it has consistently linked science and service (Almgren, Kemp, & Eisinger, 2000; Kirk & Reid, 2002). Inherently interdisciplinary, the profession also draws on a range of research modalities. Encyclopedia of Social Work Online entries, for example, encompass quantitative and qualitative research, action- and community-based participatory research, agency-based research, survey research, practice and intervention research, and research ethics. Nonetheless, Davis (2011) and others highlight gaps in social work’s readiness to fully engage in the transdisciplinary and translational environment of the changing scientific marketplace, and those observations about the profession are not relegated only to those working most directly as researchers. In 21st-century contexts, skill sets conducive to being credible, effective communicators of the discipline’s vision of values-anchored science are important for social workers across professional roles and fields of practice—from practitioners to administrators to researchers—particularly when they may be the only social worker at the table (Kemp & Nurius, 2013).

Paralleling and intersecting these research developments, interprofessional education and collaborative, team-based practice are likewise emerging as central to effective, responsive social and health care (see, for example, Frenk, Chen, Bhutta, Cohen, Crisp, Evans, et al., 2010; King et al., 2009). Across the social and health care professions, increasing emphasis is placed on skillful interprofessional teamwork, particularly where problems and needs are complex and interlocking (in elder care, for example, or where chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease intersect with poverty-related stressors). Teams that include community and lay providers are also becoming more important as a means of enhancing outreach, support, and access to care for marginalized and underserved groups (Ruddy & Rhee, 2005).

The practical relevance of transdisciplinary and translational research and practice comes into focus within the specific realities of social work practice. The interlocking challenges confronting child-welfare-involved families (and thus the child welfare system), for example, range from the impacts of trauma and early adversity on children’s development to the weathering effects of chronic structural deprivation. In turn, the scope and complexity of families’ needs is mirrored in the challenges entailed in implementing effective interventions in the equally complex organizations charged with serving them. Just this one service system stands as a vivid example that no single discipline is adequate to the task of capturing the complex etiologies underlying child-welfare-system involvement or designing the range of policy and practice interventions entailed in serving children and families with multiple needs. Similarly, this service is emblematic of the value of high-quality translational research responsive to both the difficult demands facing public child welfare practitioners and the needs and perspectives of the system’s diverse and typically highly marginalized client families. In child welfare, therefore, as is in fields such as health care and aging, the need for innovative, broad-based research and practice collaborations is increasingly emphasized (DiLorenzo, White, Morales, Paul, & Shaw, 2013).

This entry provides an overview of the transdisciplinary and translational priorities that are becoming central to research and to the relationship of research to societal impact. It describes how the field is shifting away from single discipline to more integrative disciplinary approaches to science. It defines key terms related to transdisciplinary science, distinguishing among multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research and providing an illustration of the latter. It then discusses translational research, describing the social forces urging accelerated translation of science into service, and illustrating what are referred to as translational gaps and efforts to bridge them. In summary, it assesses the changing nature of social work within this climate, as well as the changing nature of an educational pipeline that prepares professional as well as research-prepared social workers for transdisciplinary and translational science and practice (Fong, 2012).

Evolving Research Models: From Silos to Bridges

Since the late 19th century, modern universities have been organized around singular disciplines, an organizational structure that helped solidify and deepen disciplinary identities, content knowledge, and methodological tools. Departments of sociology, psychology, and public health, for example, are typically associated with particular aspects of social and health phenomena. Examined against the need for greater progress in addressing the world’s most complex and intractable problems, however—whether poverty, health disparities, war, famine, or global climate change—the limits of this unidisciplinary, silo-like approach to education and research are increasingly apparent. Narrowly specialized and segmented expertise “can place serious limits on our research horizons by restricting the types of questions we can ask, the methods and concepts we use, the answers we believe and our criteria for truth and validity” (Lyall & Fletcher, 2013, p. 2).

Analyses and interventions that fail to integrate factors representing multiple domains (often drawn from differing disciplines—that is, transdisciplinarity) or to foresee implementation challenges down the line (that is, translational insights) risk unforeseen negative impacts. Economic science, for example, is critical to evaluating the outcomes of social policies such as welfare reform. Yet research that focuses on how recipients respond to the incentives built into welfare programs without also attending to the causes and consequences of poverty can miss critically important factors affecting outcomes such as child well-being. As Henly (2013) has demonstrated, damaging gaps can occur when economically oriented welfare reform researchers and researchers attentive to family and child development and outcomes fail to integrate their models, questions, or evidence. Similarly, there is growing recognition that success in reducing or preventing health disparities—an area in which the United States has made little progress despite decades of effort—is dependent on the ability to address multiple, complex, and interlocking influences, from cells to societies (Gehlert, 2012).

Defining Levels of Disciplinary Integration in Research

Common terms for disciplinary collaborations—multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary—are often used interchangeably. Definitions are, however, sharpening in response to efforts to distill what forms of training and teamwork are best suited for different types of goals. The following definitions build from those suggested by Gehlert et al. (2010), Nash (2008), Rosenfield (1992), and Stokols (2006). The umbrella term cross-disciplinary is here used to include all types.

Level 1: Multidisciplinary

In a multidisciplinary collaboration, participants from different fields bring their respective disciplinary expertise to an effort yet stay predominantly within their disciplinary spheres, working separately or sequentially but with limited interaction. A group might produce an edited book, for example, which illustrates multiple perspectives on a common problem (for example, child maltreatment, juvenile delinquency, poverty). As a whole the book provides complementary perspectives on a central issue, but the authors and chapters are not structured to “speak” to one another. Fields may also be multidisciplinary in that multiple disciplines contribute or participate. Frequently, however, participants formulate and address distinct research questions, often coming to separate conclusions that are disseminated through their own disciplinary journals or conferences. Metaphorically, if one thinks of a unidisciplinary perspective as a single piece of fruit, one might think of a multidisciplinary approach as represented by a fruit platter. Multiple components, collectively, provide an array of flavors, but they reside alongside one another within their respective skins (inspired by Hall, 2013).

The limitations of multidisciplinarity are increasingly recognized. As Lynch (2006) trenchantly observed, “simply bolting other disciplines onto our research like some multidisciplinary Mechano set, which had a genetics piece, a psychology piece, a social piece and a biology piece, did not really deliver what we were after” (p. 1120). At the same time, attempts to integrate and make sense of separate bodies of work beyond what any single discipline can achieve are hampered by differences in theories, approaches to problems, questions, research metrics and analyses, and interpretive frameworks. Unless these differences are addressed, they tend to limit investigation of or insights into interactions between various domains or levels of factors. Social work doctoral programs, for example, frequently encourage students to take courses from other departments. However comparatively fewer social work programs offer courses, assignments, or experiences that provide opportunities for cross-discipline groups of students to learn about and begin to integrate one another’s disciplines—that is, to undertake interdisciplinarity.

Level 2: Interdisciplinary

In interdisciplinary collaborations, participants work together not only to bring multiple forms of expertise to bear on an issue but to also engage across disciplines and influence one another. To extend the fruit metaphor, interdisciplinary collaborations turn fruit platters into fruit salads. In such collaborations, researchers intentionally exchange knowledge from one discipline to another, typically learning enough to have working familiarity with one another’s conceptual frameworks, language, and methodological tools. The functional relationships and products are much more “mixed together.” This may result in the creation of new disciplines such as bioengineering, health economics, or environmental science. Members of interdisciplinary teams or disciplines generally come with the expectation that they will draw on their disciplinary strengths and be prepared to link with other disciplinary frameworks and methods toward a common goal. Learning to communicate effectively within and across disciplinary differences is strongly emphasized. In the practice arena, emerging models of interprofessional education and practice likewise emphasize the importance of interdependence among varied professionals aimed at strengthening service systems, improving care, and increasing access for underserved groups (World Health Organization, 2010).

Level 3: Transdisciplinary

Transdisciplinary collaborations and training “transcend” participating disciplines with the goal of generating bodies of knowledge and methodological approaches that more fully capture complexity. By synthesizing theoretical and methodological tools from different disciplines, these collaborations aim to more effectively address a defined problem area. Transdisciplinarity overlaps interdisciplinarity but aims for deeper levels of integration, typically requiring time, commitment of effort, patience, and a strong common vision. Taking the fruit metaphor one step further, transdisciplinarity turns the fruit salad into a fruit smoothie. Transdisciplinary collaborators create a common language, formulate shared questions, develop a holistic conceptual framework, and plan research and dissemination projects that carefully build upon one another.

In social work, transdisciplinary models are perhaps most evident in health-related research, where funding has supported centers that are focused on population health and disparities with an eye to much more fully integrating social determinants with health science models. These centers have fostered multilevel research that combines population, social and behavioral, clinical, and biological theory and methods with a focus on disparities in health services (Warnecke et al., 2008). Similar transdisciplinary models are also emerging in areas such as prevention of high-risk behaviors (Fishbein & Ridenour, 2013). Beyond social work, transdisciplinarity is a hallmark of sustainability science (Lang, Wiek, Bergmann, Stauffacher, Martens, Moll et al., 2012), a field that increasingly is engaging social work attention (Schmitz, Matyók, Sloan, & James, 2012).

Illustrating Transdisciplinarity

These newer forms of research collaboration can be illustrated using the example of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research (CIHDR) at the University of Chicago, funded by the National Institutes for Health as part of an initiative to address health disparities through transdisciplinary research. Years of conventional research effort had resulted in limited progress in reducing disparate health outcomes, in part due to the multiple forces involved and the complex interactions among these multiple drivers. Recognizing the limitations of earlier approaches, this NIH initiative fostered the development of teams from multiple disciplines, working across multiple projects to (1) more fully capture and interconnect biological, behavioral, and social contributors to health disparities; and (2) guide policy and practice directives responsive to these more encompassing models.

Research that focused on reducing breast cancer mortality among African American women illustrates this approach. A central question united the CIHDR investigators and their community partners: why, despite the fact that white women are more likely to have breast cancer, are African American women more likely to die from it? Building on knowledge that breast cancer development is predicated on specific genetic interactions, the CIHDR team developed four mutually informative, interdependent research projects. Two projects included genetics analysis, such as how aspects of the environment such as stressors and maternal behavior affected genetic expression and tumor growth. Figuratively speaking, such biological phenomena are often referred to as “downstream,” in contrast to the “upstream” influence of physical, social, and political environments. Additional projects were situated to capture the aspects of upstream environments likely to have figural roles in breast cancer development (for example, housing and community characteristics, social connections, services access). This purposefully multilevel approach allowed the teams to build in measures through which outcomes at a cellular level could be progressively linked to mezzo- and macro-level factors. For more detail on the projects, how the teams worked, and the use of this kind of research to support new interventions and training models, see Gehlert et al. (2010) (also Gehlert, 2012; Gehlert & Browne, 2013).

Figure 1 presents a simplified pictorial representation, by level of analysis, of the four projects undertaken by the transdisciplinary CIHDR team. Each tier includes complexity in its own right, in addition to the complex nature of interactions among the levels (for more detail see Warnecke et al., 2008).

Transdisciplinary and Translational ResearchClick to view larger

Figure 1. Illustrating transdisciplinary research team work used by the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research.

Adapted from: Gehlert, S., Murray, A., Sohmer, D., McClintock, M., Conzen, S., & Olopade, O. (2010). The importance of transdisciplinary collaborations for understanding and resolving health disparities. Social Work in Public Health, 25(3-4), 408-422.

Projects 1 and 4 used animal models (rat studies) to explore connections between the psychosocial environment and mammary tumor development. This approach allowed the team to realistically undertake a life-span approach to mammary tumor development (within a 2- to 4-year window), as well as experimental manipulation of social conditions (for instance, different types of stressors, social isolation), while being able to control for other factors and thus separate out causal mechanisms. These studies trace the ways in which environmental factors influence psychological and physiological mechanisms that, in turn, affect genetic activity related to cancer development. Paralleling the animal model studies, Projects 2 and 3 followed a sample of African American women with newly developed breast cancer living in 15 different urban neighborhoods. These projects captured social and psychological functioning as well as neighborhood and community data, using multiple methods including community ethnography (Salant & Gehlert, 2008). All four projects used theoretical and measurement approaches that helped the team to interrelate these data, incrementally building greater clarity about mechanisms that “crossed levels” and thus served to transfer stress and risk from environments into embodied biology.

This kind of ecological system thinking has long been central to social work. In order to specify with precision the cross-level series of causal mechanisms that lead to inequalities, however, the urgent trend is toward more comprehensive teamwork. By staying in constant communication, the CIHDR team has evolved toward more cross-project work and toward intervention development, testing, and advocacy for policy and system change. Emergent models such as that represented by CIHDR are thus more quickly and effectively “moving” science into practical application and demonstrable population benefit.

Understanding Translational Science

Like most professions and applied sciences, social work has long struggled with chasms separating research from practice and service provision. Research and practice activities are often undertaken in different settings, by different sets of individuals, with overlapping yet distinctly different priorities and training, and limited opportunities for systematic, sustained communication and collaboration. Social work routinely pursues partnered research within agencies, communities, and systems, yet knowledge producers and knowledge implementers face a host of barriers to bridging their work and maintaining a dialogue that sustains mutual relevance and comprehensibility (Proctor 2007). These challenges are particularly acute when it comes to building and sustaining collaborative relationships with community stakeholders.

Funders, legislators, and other stakeholders have expressed growing concern about these gaps, noting that investments in research are often not matched by the benefits to constituents. Social and health service providers, advocates, and the public are likewise keenly aware of problems with the fit, relevance, and timeliness of the evidence that reaches them, and of impediments to its implementation (Green, Ottoson, Garcia, & Hiatt, 2009). Practitioners and community stakeholders are removed from research activities to which they could be contributing valuable field-relevant knowledge. Furthermore, only a modest percentage of scientific knowledge “gets through” to application in the field. Reports have identified a 15- to 20-year gap between knowledge generated from research and the application of that knowledge in social and health care settings (Green, 2008; Hogan, 2003). This means that practitioners in usual care settings lag many years behind in getting access to the science that should be informing their practice (Brekke, Ell, & Palinkas, 2007).

How to Think About Translational Gaps

The goal of translational science is to better understand the nature of these impediments, to develop solutions that accelerate the movement of research to applied societal benefit, and to build partnerships between research and practice constituents to facilitate and sustain this acceleration (Woolf, 2008). Stimulated by health researchers aiming to hasten health-enhancing and life-saving advances, much of the early work on translational science was framed in clinical and biomedical terminology (Zerhouni, 2003). However, translational science is rapidly migrating into fields such as mental health and child welfare, demonstrating the broad applicability of these frameworks (Brekke, Ell, & Palinkas, 2007; Child Maltreatment, 2012).

The National Institutes of Health “road map,” aimed at transforming U.S. health care through translational science commitments, identifies three T’s or translational gaps (Dougherty & Conway, 2008). Translation 1 (T1) represents the gap between basic science and clinical research. In biomedical fields, this often involves translating laboratory “bench” research into human models or conceptualization of clinical interventions with patients, or both. Translation 2 (T2) represents the gap between clinical research (which often involves efficacy testing under highly controlled designs like randomized clinical trials) and clinical effectiveness in usual care settings, including the development of practice guidelines and tools for patients, practitioners, and policy makers. Translation 3 (T3) activities focus on moving interventions into larger systems—addressing, for example, the “how” of managing health care delivery such that evidence-informed interventions are provided with fidelity and reliability and indeed improve health outcomes. Focusing on the gaps, or “roadblocks,” between sets of activities in the many phases of research, from basic science to sustainable application, should allow better understanding of the factors that contribute to these separations, stronger “road maps” that help to minimize blockages, and faster practical benefit.

Figure 2 provides a more nuanced illustration of the range of gaps in the research continuum—each of which needs to be bridged to accelerate the journey from basic research to demonstrable population or societal benefit. Some overlap is evident between the levels portrayed in Figure 1 and the phases of research and its application and infusion into practice portrayed in Figure 3. Individuals and groups working within basic research—whether that be biomedical, developmental, or economic—are often from different disciplines, with quite different skill sets than those working on effectiveness testing (for example, assessing the outcomes when interventions developed in controlled studies are applied in typical practice settings) or those focusing on system change (for example, reorienting training, supervision, and field supports in child welfare; see Marcenko, Hook, Romich, & Lee, 2012). Translational research encourages individuals working at different points in the continuum to be more explicitly cognizant of the whole, including developing skills in engaging with researchers in other phases of research and with stakeholders.

Transdisciplinary and Translational ResearchClick to view larger

Figure 2. Illustrating phases of research and translational (T) gaps to bridge toward optimizing the benefit of science to societal benefit

The translational continuum is bidirectional. Not uncommonly, findings at later points in the continuum bring to the surface realizations that require going “back to the drawing board” of earlier work (Fraser, Richman, Galinsky, & Day, 2009).The process of moving new interventions from controlled testing into usual practice settings frequently identifies differences among client populations that require rethinking and possibly modifying the intervention to achieve satisfactory levels of effectiveness. Cultural adaptation of evidence-based interventions is thus emerging as a critical dimension of translational research and practice (Cabassa & Baumann, 2013).

Stakeholder engagement is likewise increasingly seen as central to meaningful and sustainable research-practice translation (Callard, Rose, & Wykes, 2012). Reversing the conventional assumption that knowledge flows unidirectionally from research to practice, bidirectional relationships between practitioners, stakeholders, and researchers are seen as vital to strengthening the development, use, and dissemination of tested, culturally responsive interventions. Newer generations of evidence-based practices, for example, focus less on adherence to manualized interventions and more on ensuring that interventions balance efficacy with responsiveness to local issues and needs. In this context, practitioners and end users are increasingly engaged as active partners: providing vital information about where and how interventions should be tailored to meet diverse needs, shaping the research process by generating questions and practice innovations, and participating as members of research teams (Salisbury Forum Group, 2011; McKay et al., 2010).

Investments in cultural responsiveness and stakeholder involvement require not only intervention designs responsive to diverse populations and “messy” usual care settings but research methods that better accommodate community and provider priorities (Glasgow, Magid, Beck, Ritzwoller, & Estabrooks, 2005; Landsverk, Brown, Reutz, Palinkas, & Horwitz, 2011). Central to these developments has been growing use of community-based participatory research (CBPR) methods. CBPR principles guide researchers toward forms of communication, co-construction, and collaboration that are critical to community acceptance and sustainable implementation and to ensuring effectiveness within diverse populations and complex contexts (Minkler & Wallerstein, 2010; Wallerstein & Duran, 2010). Palinkas & Soydan (2012) provide guidance for CBPR application within translation and implementation frameworks, as well as illustrations of recent social work projects.

Key developments in translational science thus include acknowledgment of the inherently iterative, engaged nature of applied research in realms such as social and health care (Green, 2008; Proctor, 2004), wider use of participatory models, more practical research designs, and an emphasis on models that are sustainable in complex real-world systems (Glasgow & Emmons, 2007; Spoth et al., 2013). Complementing and extending these efforts, implementation research addresses translational gaps related to the movement from intervention research (both controlled efficacy testing and more usual care setting effectiveness testing) to dissemination, organizational or system incorporation, and the capacity to evaluate large-scale impact (e.g., Proctor et al., 2009). In implementation research the translational gaps or challenges relate to processes of taking evidence regarding promising interventions through a complex array of contextual layers. In the social work context, these include factors such as agency or organizational contexts and processes, community characteristics, economic considerations, policy mandates or premises, systems thinking, uncertainties regarding broad-based efficacy and acceptability, and questions as to comparative effectiveness. The need for new kinds of teamwork that span these myriad gaps is a rapidly growing priority. Implementation research is thus an expanding arena of research translation within social work, with book-length guidance increasingly available (for example, Brownson, Colditz, & Proctor, 2012; Palinkas & Soydan, 2012).

By juxtaposing Figures 1 and 2, one can see that transdisciplinary and translational research have intertwined aims and strategies. Efforts to foster both more comprehensive, multilevel perspectives on social welfare and public health problems and more expedient, field-relevant pathways from research to practice require new kinds of partnerships and new ways of thinking about the relationships between research and impact. The surge of interest in collective impact represented in Hanleybrown, Kania, and Kramer (2012) and Kania and Kramer (2011), for example, emphasizes large-scale social change built upon broad cross-sector coordination—around issues such as education reform, obesity prevention, fair labor market models, and many other tenacious social problems familiar to social work. Such collaborations frequently entail radically new ways of partnering and using data and information. These, in turn, have implications for social work’s capacity to function effectively in these cutting-edge efforts—whether in research, administrative, policy, or practice roles.

Transdisciplinary and Translational ResearchClick to view larger

Figure 3. Illustrating the value of understanding data across multiple complex levels in translating transdisciplinary findings into effective interventions; the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Disparities Research.

Adapted from: Gehlert, S., Murray, A., Sohmer, D., McClintock, M., Conzen, S., & Olopade, O. (2010). The importance of transdisciplinary collaborations for understanding and resolving health disparities. Social Work in Public Health, 25(3–4), 408-422.

One additional illustration may be helpful in conveying the idea of translation gaps. The CIHDR health disparities research described above includes designing, funding, launching, and evaluating innovative interventions. Figure 3 highlights the connections between structural and environmental conditions and biopsychosocial factors in accounting for racial differences in breast cancer outcomes. Although the model used here as an example focuses on breast cancer, it has much broader applicability. It shows, for instance, that interventions aimed at decreasing health disparities should address neighborhood-level factors (for example, reducing isolation, fostering system supports, enabling system navigation) as upstream targets of what are often treated as a highly individual level health issues (for example, getting mammograms, medical treatment adherence).

Conceptually, the connective threads from structural and environmental forces to health outcomes are provided by models of life course stress embodiment (Furumoto-Dawson, Gehlert, Sohmer, Olopade, & Sacks, 2007; Nurius & Hoy-Ellis, 2013). These theoretical frameworks direct attention to biological changes and trajectories alongside and indeed interwoven with behavioral, social, and environmental factors. In fact, intervention effects, even those directed at more macro or meso levels, may reveal initial effects at the biological level, as sensitive indicators of change that precede changes at cognitive-learning, behavioral, social network, psychological, family, or community levels. Future practitioners working in arenas related to poverty, health inequalities, child and family well-being, school- or work-related issues, and a host of other social welfare concerns are thus likely to find that their training needs to include the ability to think across and understand data at multiple levels of complex ecologies. Research on stress embodiment—the mechanisms through which toxic and pernicious stress “gets under the skin,” “poisons the brain,” and subsequently affects a broad range of developmental, health, and functioning outcomes—is one example of powerful findings highly relevant to social workers working with vulnerable populations spanning many specific domains of practice and policy (see Lende, 2012; Shonkoff et al. 2012).

Building Transdisciplinary and Translational Capacity

The social work profession is “well placed to produce the socially engaged, accountable . . . research knowledge best suited to contemporary markets” (Sharland, 2012, p. 101). Its social justice mission, collaborative interdisciplinary character, long history of community-based engagement, and deep investment in the science and practice of people in context align closely with emerging emphases and imperatives. Consequently, major social work organizations have been focusing strategically on increasing social work’s perceived relevance as a key player in contemporary impact-oriented research and practice efforts. The Grand Challenges initiative sponsored by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (Uehara et al., 2013), for example, calls for social work to play more central, transformative, and collaborative roles in addressing the most pressing issues of this time, and notes the centrality to these efforts of “innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary work” (p. 167).

The transdisciplinary and translational priorities embedded in these efforts are relevant to social workers across many roles and settings. Collaboration and teamwork are as much features of contemporary health and human services practice as they are of contemporary research. Effective research to practice translation similarly relies on practitioners sensitized to the complexities of developing and implementing interventions in diverse contexts. The need for transdisciplinary and translational capacity and confidence thus applies equally, if differentially, to social work practitioners as well as researchers. Recognizing this, attention to the topics addressed in this entry is growing at all levels of social work education, from undergraduate and graduate to doctoral and postdoctoral (Bellamy et al, 2013; Fong, 2013). These and related efforts to amplify social work's transdisciplinary and translational capacities are key to the profession's readiness to collectively engage with others toward ambitious and sustainable solutions.


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                                        Glasgow, R. E., & Emmons, K. M. (2007). How can we increase translation of research into practice? Types of evidence needed. Annual Review of Public Health, 28, 413–433.Find this resource:

                                          Glasgow, R. E., Magid, D. J., Beck, A., Ritzwoller, D., & Estabrooks, P. A. (2005). Practical clinical trials for translating research to practice: Design and measurement recommendations. Medical Care, 43(6), 551–557.Find this resource:

                                            Green, L. W. (2008). Making research relevant: If it is an evidence-based practice, where’s the practice-based evidence? Family Practice, 25(suppl. 1), i20–i24.Find this resource:

                                              Green, L. W., Ottoson, J., Garcia, C., & Robert, H. (2009). Diffusion theory and knowledge dissemination, utilization, and integration in public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 30, 151.Find this resource:

                                                Hall, K. L. (2013). Transdisciplinary research: Conceptual and practical issues. Paper presented at the Transdisciplinary Translation for Prevention of High Risk Behaviors Conference. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from this resource:

                                                  Hanleybrown, F., Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2012). Channeling change: Making collective impact work. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from this resource:

                                                    Henly, J. R. (2013). Scientific exemplars in social work: Poverty and child well-being. Paper presented at the Islandwood Science in Social Work Roundtable, Bainbridge, Washington.Find this resource:

                                                      Hogan, M. F. (2003). New Freedom Commission report: The president’s New Freedom Commission: Recommendations to transform mental health care in America. Psychiatric Services, 54(11), 1467–1474Find this resource:

                                                        Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 1(9), 36–41.Find this resource:

                                                          Kemp, S. P. & Nurius, P. S. (in press). Preparing emerging scholars for transdisciplinary research: A developmental approach to doctoral education. Journal of Teaching in Social Work.Find this resource:

                                                            Kemp, S. P., & Nurius, P. S. (2013). Practical reason within and across disciplinary borders: A response to Longhofer and Floersch. Research on Social Work Practice. Published online before print November 5, 2013, as doi:10.1177/1049731513509898Find this resource:

                                                              King, G., Tucker, M., Duwyn, B., Desserud, S., & Shillington, M. (2009). The application of a transdisciplinary model for early intervention services. Infants and Young Children, 22(3), 211–223.Find this resource:

                                                                Kirk, S. A., & Reid, W. J. (2002). Science and social work: A critical appraisal. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                  Landsverk, J., Brown, C. H., Reutz, J. R., Palinkas, L., & Horwitz, S. M. (2011). Design elements in implementation research: A structured review of child welfare and child mental health studies. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 38(1), 54–63.Find this resource:

                                                                    Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., et al. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7 (Suppl. 1), 25–43.Find this resource:

                                                                      Lende, D. H. (2012). Poverty poisons the brain. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 36(1), 183–201.Find this resource:

                                                                        Lyall, C., & Fletcher, I. (2013). Experiments in interdisciplinary capacity-building: The successes and challenges of large-scale interdisciplinary investments. Science and Public Policy, 40(1), 1–7.Find this resource:

                                                                          Lynch, J. (2006). It’s not easy being interdisciplinary. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35(5), 1119–1122.Find this resource:

                                                                            McKay, M. M., Gopalan, G., Franco, L. M., Kalogerogiannis, K., Umpierre, M., Olshtain-Mann, O., et al. (2010). It takes a village to deliver and test child- and family-focused services. Research on Social Work Practice, 20(5), 476–482.Find this resource:

                                                                              Marcenko, M. O., Hook, J., Romich, J. L, & Lee, J. S. (2012). Multiple jeopardy: Poor, economically disconnected, and child welfare involved. Child Maltreatment, 17(3), 195–206.Find this resource:

                                                                                Minkler, M., & Wallerstein, N. (Eds.). (2010). Community-based participatory research for health: From process to outcomes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Nash, J. M. (2008). Transdisciplinary training: Key components and prerequisites for success. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2), S133–S140.Find this resource:

                                                                                    Nurius, P. S., & Hoy-Ellis, C. P. (2013). Stress effects and health. In C. Franklin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Work Online. National Association of Social Workers Press and Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Nurius, P. S. & Kemp, S. P. (2012). Social work, science, social impact: Crafting an integrative conversation. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5), 548–552.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Nurius, P. S. & Kemp, S. P. (2013). Transdisciplinarity and translation: Preparing social work doctoral students for high impact research. Research on Social Work Practice. First published online before print November 19, 2013, as doi:10.1177/1049731513512375Find this resource:

                                                                                          Palinkas, L. A., & Soydan, H. (2012). Translation and implementation of evidence-based practice. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Proctor, E. K. (2004). Leverage points for the implementation of evidence-based practice. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 4(3), 227.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Proctor, E. K. (2007). Implementing evidence-based practice in social work education: Principles, strategies, and partnerships. Research on Social Work Practice, 17(5), 583–591.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Proctor, E. K., Landsverk, J., Aarons, G., Chambers, D., Glisson, C., & Mittman, B. (2009). Implementation research in mental health services: An emerging science with conceptual, methodological, and training challenges. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 36(1), 24–34.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  Rosenfield, P. L. (1992). The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences. Social Science & Medicine, 35(11), 1343–1357.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Ruddy, G., & Rhee, K. S. (2005). Transdisciplinary teams in primary care for the underserved: A literature review. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 16(2), 248–256.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Salant, T., & Gehlert, S. (2008). Collective memory, candidacy, and victimization: Community epidemiologies of breast cancer risk. Sociology of Health & Illness, 30(4), 599–615.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Salisbury Forum Group. (2011). The Salisbury statement. Social Work and Society, 9(1), 4–9.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Schmitz, C. L., Matyók, T., Sloan, L. M., & James, C. (2012). The relationship between social work and environmental sustainability: Implications for interdisciplinary practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21(3), 278–286.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Sharland, E. (2012). All together now? Building disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research capacity in social work and social care. British Journal of Social Work, 42(2), 208–226.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Shonkoff, J. P., Garner, A. S., Siegel, B. S., Dobbins, M. I., Earls, M. F., McGuinn, L., et al. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), e232–e246.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Social Research Unit. (2011). Achieving lasting impact at scale: Part 1. A convening hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA, November 1–2, 2011. Synthesis and summary by the Social Research Unit at Dartington, UK.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Soydan, H. (Ed.) (2012). Shaping a science of social work. Research on Social Work Practice, Special Issue, 22(5).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Spoth, R., Rohrbach, L. A., Greenberg, M., Leaf, P., Brown, C. H., Fagan, A., et al. (2013). Addressing core challenges for the next generation of Type 2 translation research and systems: The translation science to population impact (TSci Impact) framework. Prevention Science, 14(4), 1–33.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Stokols, D. (2006). Toward a science of transdisciplinary research. American Journal of Community Psychology, 38, 63–77.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Uehara, E., Flynn, M., Fong, R., Brekke, J., Barth, R. P., Coulton, C., & Walters, K. (2013). Grand challenges for social work. Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, 4(3), 165-170.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Wallerstein, N., & Duran, B. (2010). Community-based participatory research contributions to intervention research: The intersection of science and practice to improve health equity. American Journal of Public Health, 100(S1), S40–S46.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Warnecke, R. B., Oh, A., Breen, N., Gehlert, S., Paskett, E., Tucker, K. L., et al. (2008). Approaching health disparities from a population perspective: The National Institutes of Health Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities. American Journal of Public Health, 98(9), 1608–1615.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Woolf, S. H. (2008). The meaning of translational research and why it matters. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 299(2), 211–213.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                World Health Organization. (2010). Health Workforce: Framework for action on interprofessional education and collaborative practice. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from

                                                                                                                                Zerhouni, E. (2003, October 3). The NIH roadmap. Science, pp. 63–72.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Further Reading

                                                                                                                                  Brekke, J. S. (2012). Shaping a Science of Social Work. Research on Social Work Practice, 22(5), 455–464.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Frodeman, R., Klein, J. Y., & Mitcham, C. (Eds.) (2010). Oxford handbook of interdisciplinarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Haire-Joshu, D., & McBride, T. D. (Eds.) (2013). Transdisciplinary public health: Research, education, and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                        Mor Barak, M. & Brekke, J. S. (2014). Social work science and identity formation for doctoral scholars within intellectual communities. Research on Social Work Practice 1049731514528047, first published on March 26, 2014 as doi:10.1177/1049731514528047Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                          O’Rourke, M., Crowley, S., Eigenbrode, S. D., & Wulfhorst, J. D. (Eds). (2014). Enhancing communication and collaboration in interdisciplinary research. Los Angeles: Sage.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                            Powell, B. J., McMillen, J. C., Proctor, E. K., Carpenter, C. R., Griffey, R. T., Bunger, A. C., et al. (2012). A compilation of strategies for implementing clinical innovations in health and mental health. Medical Care Research and Review, 69(2), 123–157.Find this resource: