University Department Bridges Biomedical and Life Sciences
Medical school and social science researchers often study common problems, such as childhood obesity or racial disparities in health outcomes, but from different perspectives and usually in isolation from one another. A recently launched department at Northwestern, the Department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS), aims to change that.
“Across the schools of the university, we have a vast reservoir of talent that can be applied to the many health research challenges of the day,” said Professor David Cella, PhD, MSS founding chair. “By creating a department in the medical school dedicated to applied social sciences, the university has acknowledged the value of leveraging its social science talent base as it applies to today’s healthcare challenges.”
Housed in Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the department provides a scientific home base for biomedical researchers whose studies apply social science methodologies to study health-related issues. Its central goals include conducting research on multidimensional mechanisms of health and disease, improving assessments of adult and pediatric health status, determining individual, economic and social value for disease prevention and treatment, and applying novel information technologies to health outcomes research and practice.
“MSS will create new opportunities for translational health research and revolutionize how we think about studying the effects of biomedical interventions,” said Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, director of Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR). “We are delighted that David Cella has joined C2S and IPR.”
C2S faculty, most of whom are social scientists, will collaborate with MSS faculty. The C2S research portfolio includes studies related to early influences on adult health and social disparities, stress, and health.
“David Cella is well-positioned to bring together researchers with diverse perspectives and research experiences,” Chase-Lansdale continued. “He is a psychologist conducting cutting-edge research in medical settings and an expert in the social sciences.”
Internationally recognized for his innovations in outcome science, Cella has extensively studied quality of life measurements related to treatments for a variety of conditions, from cancer to cardiovascular disease. This work includes development of the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy Measurement System for outcome evaluation in patients with chronic medical conditions, which is now used worldwide.
The establishment of the department also formally recognizes MSS faculty as the largest university-based outcomes-measurement group in the country, Cella noted.
Currently, MSS faculty are at the forefront of two critical multidisciplinary measurement initiatives supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH): the Patient-Reported Outcome Measurement Information System, or PROMIS, and the NIH Toolbox. PROMIS, for which Cella is a lead collaborator, seeks to standardize scales of patient-reported outcomes—such as pain, fatigue, anxiety, or depression—via a free, online resource for clinical researchers. The NIH Toolbox, housed at MSS and led by its associate chair Richard Gershon, is assembling a comprehensive assessment tool to standardize measures of cognitive, sensory, motor, and emotional functioning. Gershon is an associate professor and a leading expert in the application of Item Response Theory in both individualized and large-scale assessment.
In addition to these national research projects, MSS has assumed leadership on a “One Northwestern” project of fostering translational research that integrates the life and biomedical sciences at the university level.
“When scientists studying intersecting questions from different perspectives learn to ‘speak each other’s language,’ a transformational process occurs that creates the essential foundation for innovative translational science,” said Lauren Wakschlag, a developmental psychologist who is joining Feinberg’s faculty this February as the MSS associate chair for scientific development and institutional collaboration to direct the One Northwestern Initiative.
Attracted by Northwestern’s tradition of interdisciplinary research, Wakschlag has a track record of collaborative research with geneticists, epidemiologists, and developmental neuroscientists. She studies how early-life biologic insults—such as fetal exposure to cigarettes—interact with children’s genotypes and their parenting environment to influence their development. She will also be a C2S/IPR faculty associate.
MSS will work closely with IPR’s C2S, as well as other key programs within the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Education and Social Policy, and School of Communication to create sustainable cross-disciplinary collaborations. Plans include creating regular opportunities for “cross-talk” organized around key scientific questions for Northwestern researchers on both campuses and integrated training opportunities between departments and schools.
Story reprinted courtesy of the Institute for Policy Research