In November of 2014, the March of Dimes joined with the University of Pennsylvania and other leading hospitals to launch the fourth transdisciplinary research center aimed exclusively at finding what causes preterm birth. The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrates the commitment and enthusiasm of a team of accomplished investigators and faculty as they come together in this transdisciplinary and cross-institutional effort to solve the mysteries of preterm birth.

An evolution toward team science

The basic premise of the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania is that the causes of preterm birth involve highly interactive biologic and environmental factors that will not be uncovered by singular studies from isolated disciplines. Rather, the guiding premise is based on a commitment to craft investigational collaborations, integrated datasets, and innovative analytic tools that will generate new insights into the complex causes of preterm birth. Our virtual transdisciplinary and transinstitutional center assembles scientists from diverse fields to share knowledge and integrate data systems to transform one another’s perspectives and craft a rich analytic framework to understand what has until now remained a mystery.

Transdisciplinary research addresses a single topic from many perspectives, while creating shared knowledge, new methods that reveal new insights, and new syntheses aimed at solving a real world problem. For example, one area of study, Premature Cervical Remodeling, includes leading researchers in such diverse fields as bioengineering, immunology, pharmacology, and microbiology. Similar transdisciplinary teams of experts in genetics, metabolism, cell and developmental biology, epigenetics have been assembled to study the role of Bioenergetics and Genetics in preterm birth. A third theme focuses on Placental Dyfunction, and involves a community of microbiologists, molecular geneticists, reproductive endocrinologists, bioengineers and reproductive biologists. 

Building a community of these types of disparate relationships will move from local collaborations and partial intellectual discussions to more global collaborations and increasingly broad and deep intellectual integration. This new transdisciplinary approach will create a new intellectual community focused on an identifiable topic, by sharing methodological approaches and understandings. 

The March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania will develop the infrastructure and foundational elements of transdisciplinary research as a means of accelerating the answers to complex medical and environmental problems impacting preterm birth that couldn’t be found by more traditional forms of research.