With APS Board Member Varda Shoham’s unexpected death on March 18, 2014, we lost an influential advocate for psychological science. During her prolific career spanning over 30 years, Varda devoted her boundless energy and intellect to shaping a rigorous science of clinical psychology. With colleagues and friends, as well as her treasured partner Michael Rohrbaugh, Varda developed innovative methods for studying the psychotherapy process, demonstrated the power of couple-level approaches to behavior change, transformed clinical science training and accreditation, promoted the study of how and for whom treatments work, and helped to elevate the science of behavior change at the National Institutes of Health. She did all of this with a distinctive enthusiasm and warmth that those who knew her would independently describe as a “sparkle.” APS honors Varda Shoham’s leadership in psychological clinical science — and her sparkle — with this series of remembrances.
This series begins with a collective tribute to Varda Shoham from three of her graduate students at the University of Arizona: Melissa Riddle (’92–’98), Sarah Trost (’97–’04), and Kelly Rentscher (’09–’14). Together, we embody over 20 years of Varda’s career in clinical science, and our own careers are a reflection of Varda’s caring and protective mentoring. She believed in us, she challenged us, and she encouraged us at pivotal times in our graduate and postgraduate careers. She had a gift for identifying unique qualities in each of her students, and it was her confidence in us that pushed us forward.
From Melissa Riddle (National Institutes of Health): My earliest memory of Varda was a phone interview associated with applying to graduate school. It was the most exciting conversation about clinical science I had ever had, and it started me on a truly fulfilling career path in clinical science. Throughout graduate school and beyond, Varda never stopped looking out for me, including during a particularly uncertain time in my training when I was finishing a postdoctoral fellowship. It was during this time that Varda called to encourage me to apply for a position that had just opened at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The idea of working at the NIH seemed daunting, but in true Varda style, she gently convinced me not only that I should apply, but also that it would be a perfect fit. She was right — I have enjoyed my job at the NIH for nearly 15 years now, with some of the best years being the recent ones when she became an NIH colleague, and we could work together toward common goals. Varda was my “academic mom,” and she was a wonderful one.
From Sarah Trost (Cardinal Stritch University): When I joined the Family Research Lab, I recall Varda encouraging me to “sample from the smorgasbord” (her words) of classes and research opportunities at Arizona. I was able to learn from Varda and Michael as they developed a systemic, couple-based treatment for smoking cessation, and found this a unique opportunity to think deeply about the mechanisms of change and to learn how to ground a treatment in clinical science. Now, when I introduce students to psychotherapy research, I think of a favorite Varda question — “What treatments work for whom and how?”
From Kelly Rentscher (University of Arizona): When I began graduate school in 2009, Varda had just coauthored the groundbreaking Psychological Science in the Public Interest report on the current status and future prospects of clinical psychology, and it was a very exciting time in the Family Research Lab. One of my favorite memories of Varda is sitting together in her office listening to the NPR program that featured competing perspectives on the clinical science and training debate and getting to hear Varda’s commentary as we listened. At one point, she turned to me with a twinkle in her eye and that trademark Varda smile and said, “You know, Kelly, this is a very transformative time for the field, and you’ll be the next generation to carry this torch.” Varda had a talent for inspiring her students and for challenging us to achieve great things. It would be an honor to keep her vision and spark alive and carry it forward in my career.
Each of us came to work with Varda for her innovative work in clinical science and couples and family research, but we gained so much more. Thank you, Varda.
A scholarship fund has been established in Varda Shoham’s name.
Robert Levenson, University of California, Berkeley
Richard McFall, Indiana University
Gayla Margolin, University of Southern California
Richard Bootzin, University of Arizona
Dianne Chambless, University of Pennsylvania
David Sbarra, University of Arizona
Alan Kraut, Association for Psychological Science
Lisa Onken, National Institute on Drug Abuse
Jose Szapocznik, University of Miami
Edna Foa, University of Pennsylvania
Myrna “Micki” Friedlander, SUNY Albany
Laurie Heatherington, Williams College
Adam Horvath, University of British Columbia
Susan Andersen, New York University
Thomas Borkovec, Pennsylvania State University
University of California, Berkeley
We expect much from our “forces of nature,” those individuals who are fiercely present, involved, impassioned, indelible, and larger than life. We come to expect them to always be with us; we do not expect them to die early.
Varda Shoham was a true force of nature, a person possessing a rare combination of prodigious intellect, unflagging morality, unbounded energy, and deep humanity. Remarkably, her legendary capacity for work was rivaled by her equally legendary capacity for compassion, a rare counterpoint among forces of nature.
Varda did not widely share her serious health problems, and thus her death seemed all the more sudden and unthinkable. In the days and weeks following her passing, I was struck by how many people talked about the deep personal and professional connections they had with her and the many ways in which she was entwined in both their professional and personal lives. In hearing these stories, which were so rich in detail and long in chronology, it seemed that Varda managed to fit the equivalent of many full lives into one sadly foreshortened one.
My own connection to Varda goes back many, many years. Early on, I was fortunate to experience her openness and generosity of spirit and to watch as she established her own remarkably successful professional life and built a wonderful and lasting relationship with Michael. Later, our contacts were usually around professional issues, where she was a superb partner with an unfailing moral compass always ready to fight the good fight. Watching her navigate through the thicket and brambles of the battles that beset scientific clinical psychology, I was struck time and time again by her intellectual integrity and her civility. She always chose the principled path, respecting rather than vilifying those who held opposing positions, and remaining positive and hopeful even in the bleakest of moments.
Varda often defied convention. At first consideration, her move to NIH seemed surprising given her deep commitment to and success in university life. But it was clear that she saw opportunities at NIH to have a positive, constructive influence on a larger stage. This was a platform where she could nurture and encourage others, drawing on her strong organizational and leadership abilities and her capacity to celebrate and truly enjoy the accomplishments and successes of those around her.
Like a great novel that at midpoint has narrative threads that are still unresolved, Varda leaves us without completing all of her life’s work. But the many things she did finish and the many things she started that will continue on in her absence provide a lasting legacy of accomplishment. At the end of the day, there is some solace in this for all who cared for and admired her. But of course, it does not seem to be enough.
Varda Shoham — a magnificent person, a kind and compassionate soul, a force of nature, and a noble warrior. I will miss her deeply.
I got to know Varda well when we served together on the board of the Council of University Directors of Clinical Programs (CUDCP), often working as allies on common causes aimed at promoting science-centered clinical training and practice. Varda carried this banner effectively, largely due to her personal qualities of warmth, passion, and intellect. She was incurably positive and optimistic, had a winning way of presenting her case and challenging opponents without offending, and was a forceful advocate who often prevailed where others might have failed. Her leadership in tough CUDCP discussions, and her judgment about how to resolve sensitive issues, were invaluable. With her inimitable personal style, she was liked and respected by nearly everyone, even those who disagreed with her. People listened when she talked, not only because her native accent required attention, but mostly because she offered a compelling perspective. Varda didn’t always win, but she deserves credit for her valiant efforts and many successes.
Varda also emerged as a key player in the evolution of the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science, where she helped champion the Academy’s founding of the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS). Indeed, PCSAS was born at a 2006 Academy leadership gathering in Tucson, where Varda and Michael Rohrbaugh hosted the first meeting of the PCSAS drafting committee on the patio of their hillside home. I have vivid memories of that pivotal day in the desert and the part she played in it.
Varda not only was a productive and highly respected scientist and educator, but also was a tireless advocate for science-centered education and practice in clinical psychology. She co-authored the monograph in Psychological Science in the Public Interest critically examining the future of clinical training and practice, and advocating for the “clinical science” model (Baker, McFall, & Shoham, 2008). She recently took her talents to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where she became an effective proponent of the clinical science model. She thrived in that role, working tirelessly — as she did at whatever she tackled — to the very end. Her passing leaves a professional and personal void. We will miss her.
University of Southern California
Varda and I initially met during an American Psychological Association (APA) site visit, and what started as colleagues morphed into friendship … in about 1 minute. I have since learned, through my 18 years of knowing Varda, that the intermingling of work and play — of colleague and friend — was the essence of Varda. She loved her work, had tremendous fun doing it, and had so much more she wanted to accomplish. And Varda seamlessly brought so many of us into her excitement about work and about life.
Early in our relationship, Varda, Michael, and I realized that we shared mutual interests in figuring out how to mobilize the restorative qualities of family relationships toward the health of individual family members. In an extension of family-systems principles, Varda and Michael’s ground-breaking research at the University of Arizona identified ironic processes as the key to understanding problem maintenance and change. Much like Varda herself, their work was incredibly imaginative and playful. The published description of their “chicken soup” intervention remains my all-time favorite teaching example of a perfectly executed paradoxical intervention. When we spoke about how to capture variability in couples’ daily interactions to enact change, Varda’s approach was to turn the question 180 degrees and work back from situations when couples inadvertently stumbled on their own solutions. Having received one of the very first translational grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 1999, Varda and Michael developed and tested new interventions to reduce cigarette smoking with change-resistant, health-compromised smokers. They were equally dedicated to discovering, teaching, and disseminating strategies for teaching therapists how to implement interventions within couple and family contexts.
Varda was a leader in many different arenas. Highly valued as Director of Clinical Training (DCT) for the University of Arizona’s clinical science program, she was generous with her wise counsel when I became DCT at the University of Southern California. Varda was someone who led from the front and the back at the same time. She was a tremendous force in the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science, played a key role establishing a new accreditation system for clinical science programs — PCSAS — and recently chaired the Delaware Project on Clinical Science Training.
Varda had high aspirations — to change the face of clinical science. Without a doubt, she was doing just that. Never satisfied with small changes, she thought systemically, reached for the stars, and brought many along with her. She had a gentle way of twisting arms when inviting others to join her in these efforts. More than once, I started a conversation thinking I would say “no” to Varda’s request and then ended up saying “yes.” What I quickly discovered, however, is that no matter how much she asked of the rest of us, Varda asked much more of herself.
She was a captivating combination of contradictions — a romantic, someone who loved to party, who delighted in entertaining and preparing elaborate and beautifully plated meals, and someone who was full of imagination and whimsy. There also was Varda the practical-minded realist, a force to be reckoned with. She spoke what was in her mind and in her heart.
Mostly, however, Varda was someone who embraced life with gusto and love. Varda had her own style — her long, gorgeous hair punctuated by dangling earrings and vibrant colors. What truly stood out, however, was her smile — so uplifting, optimistic, and reassuring, always quick to find the humor — and her voice — so warm, inviting, and sometimes challenging but mostly so alive, interested, interesting, and welcoming. Even in my last conversation with her, a few days before she passed away, when I heard her familiar, somewhat weaker but still resonant “hello,”’ my spirits were momentarily lifted.
My husband and I are fortunate— living in Southern California, we were on Varda and Michael’s regular summer treks up the Pacific coast. I don’t know which she liked more, visiting the ocean or us, but we clearly were the beneficiaries. A walk on the pier or on a sandy beach, or sitting in the backyard with a glass of wine and seeing that sparkle in her eye … that sparkle reflected the sun and her glass, but mostly the sparkle came from deep within her as she shared her inner thoughts, made light of the serious, and made serious of the light: Those are images of Varda that I am holding on to, and those are moments that I will always cherish.
University of Arizona
Varda Shoham was a singular leader who made so many contributions in so many areas that her influence will be felt for decades. I knew Varda for more than 25 years spanning her time at the University of Arizona and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). On a personal level, she was a wonderful, giving friend and has been a big part of the lives of both my wife, Mitzi, and me. On a professional level, she was a leading voice that constantly demanded excellence from herself and her colleagues.
Varda was heroic and optimistic, not just about improving training in clinical psychology, but in her personal life. No matter how serious her physical condition, Varda was always ready to tell you about the latest findings in lung-cancer research and about how the tailored treatments she was receiving would help her recovery. Varda never let her illness interfere with her professional responsibilities.
And those professional responsibilities were extensive. Varda’s message demanding excellence rang through many domains, starting with her own research on couples and family therapy and continuing through her papers on empirically supported treatments, her focus on mechanisms of behavior change through analysis of moderators and mediators, her major contributions to improve training in clinical psychology, and, at NIMH, [her] encouraging better psychological research and training. She was collaborative with many in research and professional activities and had a strong partnership with her husband, Michael Rohrbaugh, in all aspects of life, professional and personal.
Although Varda was an inspiring leader, she eagerly sought out advice and was a good listener. Even so, once Varda understood the nature of the problem, she knew how to map the road to solving it and then to push hard until the road was paved. A good example of Varda’s influence was the effort to establish a stronger focus on clinical science in training programs. As president of the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science, Varda started to draw the map by organizing a meeting in Tucson to consider establishing a psychological clinical science accreditation system. The map took further shape with publication of a critically important monograph on the need for change in training and accreditation of clinical psychology programs coauthored with Tim Baker and Dick Mcfall. The meeting and monograph were historic, and the then-paved path led within a year to the Academy authorizing the establishment of PCSAS.
Varda was a master of acting on the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” She applied it to her health but was also able to use it professionally. We’ve all had the experience of being defeated by her Israeli accent. Understanding her was sometimes a challenge. Her students knew this better than most and would ask if having an accent made it difficult to be a therapist. Varda would respond that rather than making therapy difficult, many times her accent was helpful. It made it possible for her to tell clients that, as they could tell, she was raised in a different culture from theirs. There would be occasions, she would explain, that she would not understand the cultural influences they took for granted. Would you please, she would ask, take extra effort to explain your background and conflicts in detail so that I can be better able to understand. That request to make our assumptions visible is one from which we would all benefit.
Varda died much too early, and we miss her wisdom, her humor, and her infectious optimism.
University of Pennsylvania
Varda and I became friends and staunch allies as members of the NIMH intervention study section. We united as advocates for funding of psychotherapy research in a group tilted toward psychopharmacology. Varda’s intellect, personal charm, and commitment made her a persuasive force. Varda later joined me on APA Division 12’s task force on empirically supported treatments. Our group worked extremely hard, receiving not only positive attention but also a great deal of flak. Varda was undaunted and supported me intellectually and personally during some of the more difficult attacks. As part of her work for the task force, Varda wrote an influential paper with colleagues and students reviewing empirically supported treatments for couples and families (Baucom et al., 1998). Published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,this paper has been cited over 600 times.
Her work on the task force was but one of Varda’s contributions to promotion of the scientific basis of practice. Varda was involved in the leadership of the Council of University Directors of Clinical Programs. She tirelessly prodded the directors to put clinical psychology training on a stronger scientific footing, refusing to accept halfway measures and advocating for flexibility in training models to allow the clinical science model to flourish. Finally concluding that the APA’s goals were irreconcilably different from those of clinical science programs, Varda worked with Dick McFall and others from the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science programs to begin PCSAS, with the goal of ultimately offering an alternative to APA accreditation for clinical science programs. Along with Dick McFall and Tim Baker, Varda wrote an important paper advocating for this new training model in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. At the time, this seemed an overwhelming task to me, and I was reluctant to take it on. As ever, Varda the optimist persuaded me the pessimist to join her in the good fight. She was right. PCSAS is flourishing.
A few days before she died, I visited Varda. She was so weak she could hardly speak, but among her few words were, “Did you see the RFA?” She meant the announcement of a new funding program at NIMH she thought would be right for my research program. That was Varda — passionate about clinical science and supportive of her friends to the end.
University of Arizona
A portion of this remembrance appeared in the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology Newsletter.
As I draft this remembrance for Varda Shoham, I am sitting in her old office here at the University of Arizona, which I now inhabit and call my own. Perhaps it is the fact that I sit, day in and day out, where she sat while we were colleagues for the past 10 years that I think about her quite often. More than the physicality of our shared space, I am sure I think about Varda because we were close friends, and I considered her a very important professional mentor. She changed my life in some profound ways, and from the day we met started talking about our shared interests. We left so many threads of discussion open before her death in March, and I sense that unfinished business as acute grief — big, gaping holes in my heart and mind that only time will heal.
When I first applied for jobs in our field, I could not get a single interview. Nothing. Varda saw something in me that most others did not, and she trusted what she saw. I remember being on the phone with her for the first time. Although I had difficulty understanding her thick, Israeli accent (which, years later, I would end up explaining to other people — “What she is saying is this …”), she told me the following point-blank: “I don’t really know what it is you do, but you’ve somehow convinced me that it’s worthwhile and I would love to see you come here to Tucson to do it with us.” Without a doubt, Varda’s confidence and enthusiasm in me as a young scientist helped me grow into the person I am today.
Varda groomed me to be her successor as Director of Clinical Training in our program. I learned a tremendous amount from her — she was savvy, smooth, and very driven. If I had one last conversation with her, I would tell her that I hope I’ve made her proud. It’s terrible to lose a close friend, but I think the best I can do is to live as fully and completely as that person would have done with some more time. I am doing my best, Varda.
Association for Psychological Science
Varda Shoham was, of course, a leader in psychological science. She led as president of the Academy of Clinical Psychological Science at the critical time it was deciding to develop a new clinical accreditation system. She led as author on a particularly influential Psychological Science in the Public Interest paper exposing the current state of training in clinical psychology. She led as senior advisor to the director of NIMH on how best to disseminate what our science says about effective clinical treatments. Varda led as president at the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, and she was just starting to lead us here on the Board of the Association for Psychological Science. There are not many people you would follow anywhere, but Varda was one. So, yes, Varda was a leader in psychological science. Except, as it turns out, when it came to getting from point A to point B. You see, Varda had no sense of direction.
Varda was among the eminent psychological scientists on one of APS’s first international ventures — to China. She and I went a couple of days early to do some sightseeing. We landed, got settled, and started walking to a nearby restaurant recommended for dinner, when I noticed that Varda noticeably slowed her pace so she wasn’t walking beside me. But I recognized what she was doing since I am (mildly) not ashamed to say that I also have no sense of direction (Oh, you either?) and have developed the habit of walking just behind someone so that you can still have a conversation, but you follow rather than lead. Turns out Varda had that same strategy. But with two of us only following, we walked slower and slower and soon came to almost a complete standstill. Whereupon we each confessed our geographically challenged state. There was great laughter and mutual sympathy. It was one of our special moments.
I honestly don’t remember if Varda and I ever got to that restaurant. I wish I had the chance to ask her, to relive that experience and so many of our wonderful times together. Yes, Varda was a leader in psychological science and I would follow her anywhere. Who wouldn’t?
National Institute on Drug Abuse
I knew Varda for nearly 20 years, but it was during the past 4 years at NIH that we grew very close. Varda was strong, brilliant, warm, fearless, provocative, nurturing, and playful. She was fond of intellectual argument and debate, and could give and take feedback with ease. She was incredibly savvy and at the same time, perhaps due to her loving and trusting nature, possessed a quality of almost childlike innocence. Varda and I clicked instantly, but who didn’t click with Varda? There was such an easy, comfortable, and approachable way about her.
Her passion for clinical psychological science was intense. She worried about the field, but always with optimism and thoughts about possible ways to further it. As soon as Varda arrived at NIH she plunged in full-speed ahead, signing herself up to tackle one challenge after another, offering me irresistible invitations into her playground. And she readily accepted invitations into mine. We brainstormed endlessly about how to achieve our shared goals for the field. She accomplished more in her 4 years at NIH than many accomplish in a lifetime. In addition to her most visible role in launching and steering the Delaware Project, her fingerprints are on countless NIH initiatives in clinical psychological science. Her accomplishments are too many to list, but a few notable ones deserve mention. NIMH, she played a leading role in promoting research on targets and mechanisms of behavior change. At NIDA, she helped to lead an initiative on smoking cessation for people with schizophrenia. At the trans-NIH level, she was a highly influential member of the workgroup on the Science of Behavior Change, a group dedicated to advancing rigorous science on mechanisms of behavior change. Varda was a force.
In Varda’s Hebrew one might say, dayenu, meaning “it would have been enough.” But there was more. Varda had an uncanny knack of bringing out the best in others. She also had a similar talent for bringing out the best in the field. Perhaps this was Varda’s greatest gift to us, and for this we cannot thank her enough.
University of Miami
I have known Varda for many years, and when we had the opportunity to work together we quickly became close as both friends and collaborators.
Varda and I worked together for over 5 years in the largest adolescent family therapy randomized trial ever conducted, on Brief Strategic Family Therapy. The trial was funded by NIDA’s Center for Clinical Trials Network. Varda and her professional and personal partner, Michael Rohrbaugh, were invaluable investigators knowledgeable on family therapy and family therapy research who brought to the project many insightful questions about how we trained therapists and how we measured the “mechanism of action,” family process. Varda was the principal investigator on a NIDA-funded grant to conduct process research as part of this large, multisite study.
Together we learned a great deal about what it takes to run a randomized trial in a real-world setting, the organizational challenges which were typically the toughest to recognize and overcome, and the challenges of getting therapists to adhere to a model when organizational support was not available. Doing research was the easy part, but implementing the model in the real-world setting was the challenge that led me to become a student of the emerging field of implementation science and to redesign BSFT entirely for real world settings to include an essential organizational component. During this process Varda the scientist observed, evaluated, and integrated her observations, and then Varda the teacher would share her new understanding with the team. It was truly an honor to have the opportunity to profit from Varda, the scientist and the teacher.
For those who knew Varda, it would not be surprising to learn that Varda and Michael and Zammy and I became fast friends. As couples we developed a very special bond because Zammy is also Israeli, and they formed a very singular bond built around their common language and experiences, such as having been in the Israeli army. Zammy and Varda would often exchange fiction books in Hebrew written by some of Israel’s outstanding authors, which I would also read in English when they were translated. In addition to the common history in conducting research that moved family therapy to practice settings, we also built common history around the fiction we read.
It was uncanny, Varda’s ability to create complex bonds across latitudes and longitudes of human experience. Varda was my friend, and now my memories of Varda are my dearest friends.
University of Pennsylvania
I met Varda several times on my visits to Israel when she was a graduate student in Tel Aviv University and was a research assistant of my close friend, Yona Teichman. Already then, at the start of her career, Varda exhibited the rare combination of intellectual curiosity and eagerness to understand, coupled with personal warmth and generosity. Years later, Varda invited me to Tucson to give a colloquium at her department. Over the 2 days that I stayed with her and her husband Michael, we spent endless hours discussing profound issues such as the nature of the science of clinical psychology, psychosocial treatments, and the importance of elucidating psychological mechanisms. I remember thinking then,“How wonderful! The bright, young student has become a profound, original thinker.” And the authenticity, warmth, and generosity were still there, even more so. Our friendship that started in that visit to Tucson has deepened over the years, especially when Varda moved to Washington, DC, and the distance to Philadelphia was much shorter. For me, the friendship with Varda was so unique because we shared personal experiences — sad and happy — about our families, and because we continued to discuss and sometimes argue about topics such as treatment study designs and mechanisms that underlie treatments — and all of it in the background of having lots of fun and mutual acceptance. It was because being with Varda was always so exciting and enjoyable. Another layer in our relationship was our love for Israel, where we both were born, and our reminiscences of how wonderful it was to grow up there and how difficult our relationship to Israel had become in recent years.
Varda was (and is) a really special person, one of the very few friends with whom I could share so many aspects of my life. I miss her terribly.
Myrna “Micki” Friedlander
University of British Columbia
We are honored by the bittersweet task of offering remembrances of Varda for this collection. I (Adam) have known Varda since 1980. On the other hand, we (Laurie and Micki) actually don’t remember meeting Varda, though undoubtedly it was at a Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR) conference in the late 80s. It seems as if we have always known her, as she moved very quickly from being a conference colleague to being a good friend. As we think of Varda now, discrete images and memories — snapshots in time — are conjured up, like a chest of treasured objects that we can open and examine over and again.
First, here is Varda laughing and screaming as she careens on a little sled down a mountain “super slide” in the Berkshires, just ahead of a pack of teenage boys who are about to overtake her. She needed no coaxing by our children to join them on this adventure, which took place following two wonderful colloquia that she and her husband and professional collaborator Michael Rohrbaugh presented just a few years ago at the SUNY Albany and Williams College. These colloquia, on their research on couple dynamics in coping with chronic physical illness, were vintage Varda: clear-headed, original research that blended systemic theory, psychological science, and compassion for the individuals and couples — described with passion for the science, passion for the work — and as always, one step ahead of the field.
Now, here is Varda, many years ago when we barely knew her, drawing Micki and Laurie into an intensely productive conversation about research at an invite-only (no doubt she was responsible for the invite!) family therapy research conference at Temple University.
I (Adam) have an image of my very first meeting with Varda: Aspen, Colorado — my initiation into the SPR family. Sit-down banquet dinner, and I only know two persons in the room, both already seated at a full table. As I try to inconspicuously find the table for the “leftovers,” a voice, clear and loud with an Israeli twang, rang out from behind: “Sit.” She was warm, effervescent, and perceptive and had the ability to be intimate without being intrusive. The rest of the dinner was spent in an intense discussion on the question of whether the watch on her wrist was an analogue or digital device.
Flash forward to Varda, as president of the North American SPR chapter in 1993, engaging and leading others in the study of psychotherapy, and later with Michael, entertaining the whole crowd at their lovely home in Arizona during the 1997 SPR conference in Tucson. Their hospitality sometimes transcended their presence: Adam: My flight is delayed until the next day and I call Varda on her cell phone. “I’m stuck here for a day. Do you have time for coffee?” Varda says, “No, you must come over to our house,” and she gives me directions. When I get there, an arrow is taped to the front door. Under the mat I find a key and a message: Actually both Michael and I had to go out of town, but you must stay the night, the white wine and & cold cuts are in the fridge. Don’t forget to lock the door when you leave … Sorry to miss you. V & M”
Once again, here is Varda, the wonderful mentor of clinical graduate students, giving Micki tips on how to survive being Director of Clinical Training without losing research focus: “Send all the faculty in your program an email, and tell them if they can’t agree on the issue, we’ll just need to schedule a meeting. That way, you won’t have many meetings — if any!”
Alas, here is Varda, across the years, laughing and sparkling in her signature turquoise jewelry and, at the SPR conference in Snowbird, Utah, Texas line-dancing in her cowboy hat. Whatever Varda was interested in she examined with intellect, intensity, and passion. She had the capacity to be totally in the moment, and her focus was laser sharp, whether the object was the real nature of the quartz wrist watch or the value of “empirically validated treatments.” Oh, yes, we (Adam) went around this subject many times. But you could, with Varda, argue passionately and laugh and hug at the same time.
So, as we reflect on Varda’s quick intelligence, her forthrightness, her warmth and generosity of spirit, above all there is her striking vitality. She lived life fully, and with great energy. She had so much more to live, so much more to give, had Fate permitted. May all our collective memories of her be a blessing, for now and always.
New York University
Little known among Varda’s contributions is her service on Israel’s Council on Higher Education Committee to Evaluate Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences, which reviewed each university and college in the country operating a full-fledged program (which I chaired along with Barbara Tversky). Varda advocated strongly for psychological science in Israel, as did all committee members, and was especially impassioned in the realm of clinical psychological science. With her position foundational, the committee proceeded according to the standard that research evidence from psychological science as a whole, and from clinical psychological science in particular, be integrated into all didactic coursework and training in clinical psychology. Advancing evidence based practice in Israel was central to her vision as well, both as a framework for clinical research and as the lynchpin of clinical training in in-house clinics actively integrating research and practice.
This proved to be challenging, of course. Some institutions, for example, required not a single course in cognitive behavioral therapy or assessment (CBT), and overall, few opportunities for practice training in CBT were available as practicums or as internships, even though posttraumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders were such pressing matters of public health. Likewise, most programs allowed little time for systematic research training or study of evidence in tandem with practice training.
The committee’s tasks were also easier said than done for other reasons. Rules governing accreditation of clinical programs and clinical licensure in Israel required so much non-empirically based coursework as to be prohibitive. As an illustration, the rules then required that all students complete four full-semester courses entirely on projective assessment. Such rules had long remained in place despite organized opposition by faculty from the major universities who presented their case as a group to advance clinical psychological science. Our recommendations, if implemented, would thus necessitate a thorough reconsideration of these guidelines, and we were mindful of this complication.
Such challenges are hardly unique to Israel, of course, and Varda’s comprehensive understanding of clinical psychology worldwide contributed substantially to the committee’s work, and ultimately to clinical psychology in Israel because our recommendations were in fact adopted, if incrementally.
It will surprise no one who knew Varda that, in this work, her unwavering commitment to the field was palpable and her enthusiasm infectious. Unflappable in the face of pressure, she was ready with a warm smile and good humor, and of course that unmistakable embrace of fellow travelers that was her hallmark. Quite beyond her sheer smarts and ardent advocacy, she also had a true knack for diplomacy that proved invaluable since it stemmed from a deep empathy with faculty in clinical programs working to fulfill research and training missions and to be responsive to students’ needs. She was fearless and wise beyond easy portrayal — someone with a big heart, feet planted firmly on the ground — who exuded both the Native American desert of her adopted Arizona home and the earthy Mediterranean of her Israeli roots. Salt of the earth, and in some circles one might say truly “an old soul.”
Pennsylvania State University
Varda, I am going to miss you — the light in your eyes, the warm smile, the caring and understanding in your face. Mary and I moved to Tucson just before you and Michael left for Washington, DC. The sadness at the loss of nearness was softened a bit by the joy of knowing that NIMH was about to have a bright and shining star lighting its corridors and in its minds. I loved hearing about the impact your work was having on NIMH and on the field, and now, thinking about the future impacts that will flow from it through those who will carry it on. You spent your life seeking truth. You knew that scientific method was one of the most valuable routes to its discovery. You were a critical part of creating the scientific criteria for evaluating whether a psychotherapy was truly effective. In your empathy, you knew that our people had a right to know, beyond beliefs, opinions, and politics, what treatments might relieve their suffering and allow them to feel alive once again. You led our field (without being “the leader,” as was your way) into a new accreditation system for graduate training in clinical psychology, one which placed science at its heart, where it was always meant to be. Everything you did, you did with grace, compassion, brilliance, and love. You brought family therapy alive, not merely with your wonderful research but also in how you related to each human being lucky enough to be in your presence. Everyone was your family. They are going to miss you.