The last week of Sona Dimidjian's second year of graduate school at the University of Washington, tragedy struck. Her adviser, mentor and friend--renowned clinical researcher Neil Jacobson, PhD--died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Along with devastated family and colleagues, he left behind two large clinical research projects in mid-stream, including a clinical trial comparing depression treatments that Dimidjian was helping coordinate. The lab, and everyone in it, was in turmoil.
Dimidjian briefly considered leaving Washington but instead decided to stay and finish Jacobson's depression study. She faced huge obstacles: Not only was it a complicated study, but it was in financial trouble because of some unsuccessful recruitment attempts.
The decision to stay and complete the study reflects Dimidjian's loyalty and her dedication to conducting research that will directly benefit people, says Vanderbilt University clinical researcher Steve Hollon, PhD, who became one of Dimidjian's mentors after Jacobson died.
Indeed, she not only finished Jacobson's study, but won APA's Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology) Student Research Award for it in 2005 and published the study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 74, No. 4, pages 658-670) last year. Now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, she's developed strong ties and collaborations with many of the top clinical researchers in the country.
"When I first met Sona, I thought she was another in a long line of outstanding graduate students going through Neil's lab," says Hollon, who was Jacobson's good friend and collaborator. "That impression just exploded after he died. She did an absolutely terrific job [with the depression study]. Now she's just exploding into the field."
RESEARCH INSPIRED BY PRACTICE
Dimidjian's drive to study ways to help people started with her upbringing: Her mother is a professor of early childhood education at Florida Gulf Coast University and her father is a private practice psychologist in Boston.
As an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Chicago, she got interested in family and couples therapy while working at a residential treatment program for children with severe psycho-pathology. That, combined withan interest piqued by some social work courses, influenced herdecision to pursue a master's in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. After earning her degree, she worked as a couples and family therapist.
"Doing psychotherapy in the community, I often asked questions about how therapy works, what works for whom, and what treatments work best," says Dimidjian. "I had direct experience of the lack of immediately available answers to those questions in community practice settings."
Academic research, she believed, would allow her to answer some of those questions and, eventually, lead to improving care for more patients than she could directly help in clinical practice.
"She embodies the model of the research practitioner," says Steve McCutcheon, PhD, director of training at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, who oversaw Dimidjian for her internship as well as a postdoctoral fellowship. "She's fascinated by the science of psychology and she truly cares about people."
Adds Emory University clinical researcher Ed Craighead, PhD, who hired her at Colorado: "She does clinical science for all the right reasons--to improve the care to patients and make treatments more available."
KEEPING A LEGACY ALIVE
Dimidjian has gone about the mission to improve treatments by pursing shared interests with researchers all over the country--even while she was still a graduate student.
"She's the kind of person people want to be around," says University of Washington clinical psychologist Marsha Linehan, PhD, who mentored Dimidjian at Washington and during her postdoctoral fellowship. "She's extremely analytical, able to pick out what's important and what's not and able to see things others don't."
Throughout her graduate career she sought out collaborations with top researchers. For example, her own meditation practice piqued an interest in studying mindfulness and its potential role in psychotherapy. She went for training in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy with expert Zindel Segal, PhD, at the University of Toronto, and quickly developed a strong relationship with him.
"She was the kind of student that everyone wanted to have," says Linehan, with whom Dimidjian also formed a collaborative relationship based in part on their mutual interest in mindfulness. "So after Neil died, several senior researchers took her under their wing."
In particular, Hollon at Vanderbilt and Bob Kohlenberg, PhD, at Washington stepped into the void left by Jacobson. And, although they provided support and advice, all agree that it was Dimidjian herself who kept Jacobson's depression study alive.
The study was a large clinical trial comparing pharmacotherapy, traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and behavioral activation (BA), which focuses on helping patients connect with sources of reward in their lives and solve life problems. In the end, the study found that BA worked as well as drugs and better than CBT for more severely depressed patients. The result is promising because BA may be easier to administer to patients and to train clinicians to use.
"No one would have heard of BA if it wasn't for Dimidjian," says Hollon, a CBT proponent and co-author on Dimidjian's study. "Psychotherapies have a half life. When they have data they take off. If not, they disappear. Now, when I go to meetings, most of my slides discuss my own work and I include a few on the Seattle study. When I'm through, most of the questions are about behavioral activation."
Although more research is needed to demonstrate the promise of BA, most experts agree the findings are exciting and will spin off many new studies.
Dimidjian will work on one of those new studies as a collaborator on a grant awarded to the University of Washington's Elizabeth McCauley, PhD, to test BA as a treatment for adolescents. Dimidjian believes BA will prove to be a powerful new tool for treating depression across the age spectrum. She wants to replicate the BA study in adults, and is working with Linehan and the company she founded, Behavioral Tech Research, to design a program that would develop a computer-based tool for training BA.
In addition to these professional responsibilities, she has made her family-husband, Chuck Langdon, a technical writer who works from home, and 5-year-old daughter, Serena--a priority.
"My life is an evolving improvisation that I work on day to day," she says, comparing how she juggles work and home with how she took on Jacobson's depression study. "Sometimes it flows more effortlessly, sometimes it's more of a scramble and you have to adjust and get it back on track."
That's not to say there weren't times when she doubted she could balance academia with family, but she searched out enough positive role models to keep her worries at bay. She talked with junior faculty about their decisions to have children and read anything she could find on the subject (which wasn't much). Indeed, when job hunting, she and her husband limited their search to departments that met Dimidjian's research needs and that were a good match for their family.
Colorado seems to be a perfect fit, she says. In fact, the psychology department values hiring staff with families, says Craighead, who, along with his wife, research psychologist Linda Craighead, PhD, raised four children within Colorado's fold.
"What makes it work," says Dimidjian of her marriage, "is that we have really strong values about integrating work and parenting in our lives. That means we sacrifice time as a couple. We spend lots of nights sitting side by side, both on our laptops. But we have a strong foundation and shared perspective that co-parenting and integrating family life with work that helps to alleviate suffering in our world is essential and possible."
Dimidjian's not sure how she will implement these values in her daily reality, but the future seems promising. In fact, when asked where Dimidjian will be in 10 years, her mentors provide answers that are unwaveringly optimistic.
Linehan probably sums it up best: "Wherever she wants."
Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.