Can personal traits — such as openness to perspectives from different disciplines or recognizing the value of inclusiveness in scientific work — influence the intellectual quality and societal impact of someone’s research?

This is what Shalini Misra sought to find out through a study of Virginia Tech researchers’ “transdisciplinary orientation," a personal quality that predisposes someone to engage in cross-disciplinary research.

In transdisciplinary research, Misra noted, investigators from different disciplines work closely to integrate and create new ideas, concepts, theories, or methods that go beyond discipline-specific approaches to problems. This differs from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, in which researchers do not synthesize disciplines to that extent.

Misra, an assistant professor in College of Architecture and Urban Studies' School of Public and International Affairs in the National Capital Region, led the study.  With colleagues Dan Stokols of the University of California Irvine, and Lulu Cheng of Monsanto, Misra developed a new instrument: the Transdisciplinary Orientation Scale. This tool gauges the values, attitudes, beliefs, conceptual skills and knowledge, and behaviors that constitute transdisciplinary orientation.  

Based on their research projects to date, Virginia Tech researchers from a range of disciplines — including social sciences, biological sciences, education, business and economics, computer sciences, and engineering — answered questions concerning their interest in learning about new research methods and tackling complex problems; their willingness to expend time and effort in team-based work; and their ability to create conceptual frameworks that bridge multiple fields; and others. The integrative quality and scientific scope of respondents’ publications were evaluated by independent researchers.   

“The results showed that scholars with higher levels of transdisciplinary orientation were more successful in synthesizing concepts, ideas, or methods from multiple disciplines and produced more interdisciplinary research articles. Transdisciplinary oriented researchers also produced scientific outputs that were judged to have greater translational, policy, and practical relevance,” said Misra.

“Transdisciplinary orientation is conceptualized as an intrapersonal disposition that emerges over the course of one’s scholarly career and predisposes an individual to engage in cross-disciplinary team-based or independent research. The more exposure to different settings and cultures that one experiences during his or her scholarly career the more one is inclined toward transdisciplinary research,” Misra added.

Among the other factors that are linked to individuals’ transdisciplinary orientation is the number of years in academia. Misra found that researchers who have been in academic settings for longer produce research that is more unidisciplinary. 

“Only recently have universities begun to recognize and encourage cross-disciplinary research. University curricula and incentive structures still promote specialization and unidisciplinary research,” Misra said.

Researchers who had more experience in participating in cross-disciplinary team research had higher levels of transdisciplinary orientation, she said.

 “What we learned can be useful in the development of new curricula as well as short- and longer-term training strategies to cultivate among undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students and scholars. Information about potential team members’ and research partners’ transdisciplinary orientation can be useful in strategically designing cross-disciplinary science teams to maximize their probability for success,” Misra said.

This research was supported by a grant from the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment at Virginia Tech.   

The study was published by the Journal of Collaborative Healthcare and Translational Medicine.   

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