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UC develops faculty into elite trans-disciplinary research leaders

Findings Staff| Oct. 8, 2019

Sitting across from one another at the Langsam Library Starbucks, professors Zvi Biener and Josh Gross agree that their paths would have probably never crossed at UC was it not for the Office of Research’s Trans-disciplinary Research Leadership Program.

Meaning they wouldn’t be on a journey together to work on solutions to a growing health public issue linked to conditions such as memory loss, heart attack, even early death.

“None of us had ever studied loneliness,” says Biener, a philosopher. “The more we talked about it,” adds Gross, a biologist, “the more we realized we had landed on a sticky, subjective condition—a wicked problem.”

The rest of “we” is Karlynn BrintzenhofeSzoc, a professor in social work; Rebecca Lee, an associate professor in nursing; Maobing Tu, an associate professor in engineering and Xinhao Wang, a professor in planning. The six faculty members made up the second cohort in the OoR’s Trans-disciplinary Research Leadership Program. 

Together, they have created a multifaceted, novel approach to measuring loneliness in older adults—a problem believed to affect as many as one in three American seniors. They considered psychological, social, biological and environmental factors to loneliness and were guided by distinguished mentors, Melanie Cushion, senior associate dean at UC College of Medicine, and Janet Moore, professor at the College of Law and interim co-director of the College’s Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Mentors are a keystone of the program.

Ultimately, they want to use their research to create a personalized approach to addressing and treating loneliness. Some of the team members are moving the idea forward and will apply for extramural funding to support expansion of the project. 

The loneliness project is a “homerun” for the TDRL program, says Alex Lentsch, program co-creator. Most faculty members chosen for the program have little to no prior experience doing trans-disciplinary research, but each has shown promise as research leaders on campus. The program is therefore largely designed as experiential training, says Lentsch, who serves as senior associate dean for Faculty Affairs & Development in the College of Medicine. Together, faculty work out a hypothesis-driven project, figure out how to meet deadlines and develop a budget. Having a proposal that can be submitted for funding at the end is the ultimate goal.

“The value of trans-disciplinary research becomes clearer and clearer by the day,” says UC’s Vice President for Research Patrick Limbach, who called for the creation of the program. “At times, it can be the best way to solve the world’s complicated problems. And that’s why UC’s research community needs to be nimble and ready to assemble when problems arise.”

The experience, Biener says, was “eye-opening.” Gross says, “It gave me profound insight into how different we, as individuals, think and conceptualize. Our world is rich with different personality types and different ways of thinking and exploring the world—and that’s a good thing.”

The Trans-disciplinary Research Leadership Program is accepting applications for its fourth class of scholars until Oct. 31.