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Translational psychology

What is translational science?

The key characteristic of translational science is its bidirectionality, says Howard Kurtzman, PhD, deputy executive director of APA's Science Directorate.

"In translational research, basic research informs the development of a treatment or other forms of interventions, but considerations of practical problems inform what questions basic scientists look at," he says. "Ideally, it goes back and forth."

A researcher interested in cognition might apply that research to understanding cognition in people with schizophrenia or developing cognitive treatments, for example. Those experiences could, in turn, raise interesting questions about basic mechanisms of cognition.

Applied research, in contrast, tends to be unidirectional. "That's taking the findings of basic research and applying them in specific ways," Kurtzman says.

Translation can occur at multiple levels. Kurtzman points to a 2008 Journal of the American Medical Association article (Vol. 299, No. 2) that lays out two main types of translational research:

  • In "T1" translation, explains author Steven H. Woolf, MD, of Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers translate basic research into new interventions.

  • In "T2" translation, the emphasis is on translating interventions that work in the lab into real-world settings. Dissemination and implementation research (see Nov. 2010 Monitor on Psychology) is an example of T2 work, adds Kurtzman.

"Most individuals have T1 in mind when they use the term translational research," writes Woolf. "And it attracts more funding."

But no matter how you define it, translational science is a hot field for psychologists working in a wide variety of areas, experts agree. And while the term "translational" is most commonly used in health-care research, says Kurtzman, psychological research in any area — whether it's human factors, industrial/organizational or education — can be considered translational. It's any kind of research that takes seriously both the real-world issues and the basic science and how they interact, he says.

Why it's hot

The federal government is driving much of the interest in translational science. Science funding has leveled off in recent years, and the federal government is shifting its priorities toward research that gets real-world results.

The health-care reform law, for example, created a Cures Acceleration Network at the National Institutes of Health to speed scientific discoveries from bench to bedside. Although Congress hasn't yet appropriated the funds to set up the program, the move exemplifies the government's growing emphasis on translation.

NIH — and the National Institute of Mental Health in particular — have already taken translational research to heart. NIMH's 2004 reorganization resulted in the creation of two divisions specifically focused on translational research, the Division of Adult Translational Research and Treatment Development and the Division of Developmental Translational Research.

Psychologist Bruce N. Cuthbert, PhD, director of the Division of Adult Translational Research and Treatment Development, predicts that the percentage of funding devoted to translational research will only grow in coming years. "Translational research is where a lot of the action's going to be," he says.

Congress is leading the charge, say Cuthbert and other experts. "The institutes are under enormous pressure to try to translate basic scientific findings into new ways of ameliorating disease," Cuthbert says. That's understandable, he says, adding that it typically takes two decades for new treatments to make it out of the laboratory and into the health-care system. "Naturally, there's a desire to speed up the process so we get these new treatments out doing good for people," he says.

Translational research is also a priority for the military, says Amy M. Smith Slep, PhD, co-director of the Family Translational Research Group at Stony Brook University in New York. The lab, which focuses on interpersonal violence, has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Air Force.

"The military has always been committed to really solid research that can be quickly translated into impacting systems and folks," she says.

Other parts of the government are eager for translational specialists, too. The Federal Aviation Administration, for example, is drawing on translational research to help it revamp air-traffic-control systems to meet ever-increasing flight traffic, says Patricia R. DeLucia, PhD, president of APA's Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology) and a psychology professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is another agency addressing issues that create opportunities for translational specialists, she adds. DHS needs experts who can draw on basic science about human behavior to help reduce terrorism.

What you can do

Some psychologists specializing in translational research focus more on the basic science — or T1 — side of things. As a translational specialist, you might take research findings and use them to create empirically supported prevention programs and treatment approaches.

Psychology professor Carl W. Lejuez, PhD, of the University of Maryland, for example, does basic research on addiction, personality pathology and mood disorders in hopes of coming up with better treatment programs.

In contrast to basic research, translational research begins with a clinical question, says Lejuez, director of the university's Center for Addictions, Personality and Emotion Research. "In translational research," he says, "the basic research that you do is a means to an end."

Others work more on the applied end of the translational spectrum, ensuring that programs that work in lab settings actually work out in the real world.

David M. Janicke, PhD, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida, exemplifies that kind of T2 work. His research focuses on translating treatments for pediatric obesity that have been proven to work in lab settings into underserved rural settings.

Instead of highly trained PhDs in laboratory settings, he's using staff at cooperative extension services to deliver the interventions. And while the populations in lab-based efficacy studies are tightly controlled, out in rural Florida he's targeting people with greater racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity.

Some proven approaches, such as having participants write down everything they eat and drink, just aren't realistic in this setting, says Janicke. "You've got families working multiple jobs, one-parent families, changing work schedules," he points out. "Some of these things are just too much for families to do." He has also had to tailor the interventions to suit Southern culinary traditions.

Earnings outlook

Being a translational expert gives you plenty of flexibility when it comes to the job market, says Cuthbert. "You have more job possibilities, because you can wind up more on the basic side or more on the clinical side," he says. And the wide range of settings where translational research takes place adds to the possibilities, say other experts. That variability in the kind of positions you can take on also means variability in the salary you might earn.

Government jobs for a doctoral-level researcher with a postdoc and a few years of experience can pay $90,000 or more, says Cuthbert. Industry jobs and consulting positions may also pay well.

For those going the academic route, assistant professors in graduate psychology departments earn a median salary of $63,000, according to APA's 2010 annual salary survey.

How to get there

Preparing for a career as a translational specialist means grounding yourself in both the basic and applied worlds, says Lejuez. If you plan to do translational work in genetics, for instance, you need to understand the biology. "You have to be able to speak both languages as best you can," he says. "It's a tricky balance between breadth versus depth."

Similarly, you don't want to end up talking about the clinical implications of basic research without ever having seen a patient. You don't have to be a therapist, Lejuez explains, but you do need some understanding of clinical phenomena.

In addition to getting involved in a range of research experiences, seek out specific coursework to gain in-depth knowledge in the areas you plan to work in, Lejuez says. You can also target specific clinical experiences in externships and your internship to gain the applied expertise that matches your translational research goals.

For example, if you're interested in taking a lab-proven depression intervention into the real world, seek an internship in a community mental health clinic. That will give you a ground-level view of the things that can derail new treatments, such as staff training or cultural factors.

You may not be able to squeeze all the training you need into a typical graduate career, warns Lejuez. He suggests that students spend an extra year in their graduate programs doing joint research with clinical and research mentors. "That way you can see the synergy," he says.

Postdocs can also help you gain any specialized skills you may need, such as neuroimaging or neuroscience.

Pros and cons

The need to master so much material is one of the potential drawbacks of a translational career, warns Cuthbert. "You could end up being a jack of all trades and master of none," he says.

Having so many areas of interest can also increase your workload.

"The pace of science is just so rapid, you have to read all the time to try to keep up with the literature and stay on top of things," says Cuthbert.

Translational work can also be a little intimidating, Lejuez adds.

"If you study a narrow set of questions and really develop them, you're unlikely to be out of your comfort zone," he says. "As a translational researcher, your comfort zone is a lack of comfort."

Translational researchers also need to be comfortable working in large teams and taking on administrative and management responsibilities, Slep says.

But for many translational specialists, those potential problems are outweighed by the intellectual stimulation the job provides. Even more important, says Slep, is the satisfaction of knowing your work really makes a difference.

"There aren't many people who think, 'When I grow up, I want to go to school for a million years and ... write 100 journal articles that are read by an average of 14 people,'" she says. "If you can work in a way that impacts systems and changes what we're doing for people, that's really helpful and exciting."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.