Psychologists can find rewarding opportunities to work with other disciplines within NIH's major research initiatives
Several major initiatives welcome a transdisciplinary perspective, even if on the surface they don't sound terribly psychological. Among them are the All of Us/Precision Medicine Initiative, the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) and the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program.
"There are lots of opportunities, if the medical side becomes aware of the skills and content knowledge we psychologists have," says psychologist Leonard Bickman, PhD, a research professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.
His research, focusing on how to encourage people to participate in clinical trials, receives funding from the NIH Clinical Translational Science Awards Program through Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Recruitment Innovation Center.
"If you're interested in applying theory, it's a wonderful world to work in," he says.
Among the initiatives where psychologists are finding opportunities is the All of Us program, which offered $55 million in awards in fiscal year 2016 to build the partnerships and infrastructure to get the program off the ground. All of Us is recruiting its million-plus participants and plans to release funding announcements once the project is launched. Those participants, representing a diversity of ages, races and backgrounds, will share biological samples, genetic data, lifestyle information and health records. Ultimately, those data will help researchers advance a more personalized approach to medicine by identifying biological markers for disease, identifying why people respond differently to medications, developing new ways to measure disease risk and creating a platform to test new targeted therapies.
The project will also collect large amounts of data on factors relevant to psychology, including stress, mood states, health risk behaviors and family and social network dynamics, says William Riley, PhD, director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at NIH.
"As this builds up to over a million participants, there will be a lot of opportunities for behavioral and social scientists to access those data. They'll also be able to apply to add other variables of interest to them," he says. "The longitudinal nature and sheer size of the sample will make a big difference for behavioral research."
Another important initiative for psychology research will be the BRAIN initiative, Riley says. BRAIN began funding researchers in 2014 and continues to accept new applications, awarding more than $70 million to research teams at 60 institutions in fiscal year 2016. The first stages of the project have mostly been focused on building tools that enable scientists to map the connectivity and circuitry of the brain.
"But all of that work is ultimately to understand behavior," Riley says. "As we move into the next five years, the goal will be to take some of those tools and map that circuitry onto specific behaviors. I expect we'll be seeing even more things coming out of BRAIN that have increasing relevance to psychology."
Sterling Johnson, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has funding from BRAIN for a project that aims to develop better methods to detect small but meaningful structural changes in the brains of healthy adults that could predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease. He's also funded through the large BD2K initiative for another project that applies computational neuroscience to Alzheimer's disease. Launched in 2012, BD2K aims to develop tools to integrate data science and vast data sets (often called "Big Data") with biomedical research.
Those projects are succeeding thanks to the close collaboration between the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and the University of Wisconsin's Department of Computer Science, he says. "This kind of research is much more powerful when you can do it in a multidisciplinary way," he says. "It's not a new concept to do team science, but initiatives like BRAIN really incentivize thinking about a problem from multiple angles, and really allow for high-impact science."
Speak a common language
Leslie Leve, PhD, who trained as a developmental psychologist and is now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, is also beginning to reap the benefits of transdisciplinary research, thanks to her work with Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO). Launched in 2016 with $157 million in awards, the seven-year initiative will study the effects of a broad range of early environmental influences on child health and development.
The program was a perfect fit for Leve, who for more than a decade has followed birth and adoptive families in an effort to separate the effects of genes and parenting on child development. Under a new grant from ECHO, Leve and her colleagues will enroll new children to build upon their existing data.
In the process, she's collaborating with psychologists, physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, geneticists and environmental scientists. "Everyone is coming from different philosophical backgrounds. In the end, that produces really novel, innovative science," she says.
Yet it can be challenging, too. Openness to ideas and willingness to learn from others is key to succeeding, Leve says. "We're learning to speak a common language and find the best way forward. You have to be willing to hear other perspectives, other paradigms and consider them in your research methodology."
It's not the right path for everyone. In addition to good communication and willingness to learn, thriving in this space requires patience, Bickman says. "It's so much easier to run a study with college students, hand out a questionnaire and be done in a semester. These large-scale projects often don't bear any fruit for years," he says. "It's a very different career path, and it has to be considered carefully." But for the right personality, the rewards can be significant, he adds.
Interested in diving in? Riley, Johnson and Leve all recommend starting by learning the basics of other fields relevant to your research interests. Read up on basic genetics. Learn to use electronic health records. Talk to computer scientists and learn their lingo. "Do some initial work to set yourself up to be competitive for a project like this," Riley says.
You probably don't have to go far to make those connections, Leve adds. "It's a tight-knit science world. Most likely, I know somebody who knows somebody who's an expert in a particular discipline, whether at my own institution or elsewhere."
She recommends building those connections in natural ways, by collaborating on a paper or sharing a draft of a grant you're working on to get the perspective of someone from a different field. "Those things can provide a really good training ground for this kind of experience," she says.
Ultimately, if you want to be a part of a major research initiative, you have to be willing to look beyond the traditional boundaries of psychology to collaborate and innovate in bold new ways, says Johnson. "It's hard to get funded by NIH these days doing individual lab research. NIH is looking for high-impact science that's really going to move the needle," he says. "They're looking for things with clear translational relevance that are going to make the world a better place."
The BRAIN Initiative
Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes Program
Big Data to Knowledge
By Kirsten Weir
This article was originally published in the June 2017 Monitor on Psychology