1 year, 1 newborn, 2 awards, 1 cancer diagnosis

Psychologist receives devastating news amidst a year of personal, professional highlights

Psychologist Bethany Reeb-Sutherland never lets anything get in the way of helping those who depend on her. Not even cancer.

Mother. Wife. Educator. Mentor. Researcher. She navigates each relationship with a calm, quiet demeanor that can be deceiving. Under her gentle exterior is a strength of will and loyalty that is unwavering.

In the spring of 2016, Reeb-Sutherland was riding a wave of success. In her fourth year as an assistant professor at FIU, she was managing the Brain and Behavior Development Lab. She was advising several graduate students and two undergraduate McNair Fellows along with several research assistants. They were all flourishing. Her research on early childhood development was catching the attention of her seasoned peers all across the United States. She and her husband, FIU Psychologist Matthew Sutherland, celebrated the birth of their second son March 21. Two weeks later, at the age of 37, the mother, wife, educator, mentor and researcher took on another title — cancer patient.

She first noticed symptoms late in her pregnancy, but they were dismissed — after all, what woman’s body doesn’t change while pregnant? Once her son was born, breastfeeding was a challenge. She knew something wasn’t right. But she was too young, too healthy, and had no family history of breast cancer. The scientific odds were in her favor. The diagnosis was not. With a 2-week-old baby and a 3-year-old son at home, Reeb-Sutherland was presented with the greatest test of her will — stage three breast cancer.

“My first thought was how is this going to affect my children,” Reeb-Sutherland said.

Shock soon gave way to action. As she was developing treatment plans with her doctors, she was tending to her family at home. She called a meeting with her students to ensure their research and their studies didn’t go off-track. The woman, who was preparing for the fight of her life, focused much of her attention on those who depended on her.

Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton, left, and Vice President for Research and Economic Development Andres Gil, right, present mentorship award to Bethany Reeb-Sutherland.

“When Bethany asked us all to meet with her and told us she had been diagnosed with such a serious illness, we were all speechless,” said Michele Bechor, one of the graduate students Reeb-Sutherland advises. “The news was heartbreaking and unexpected. The last thing on our minds was how her illness would affect our work.”

Reeb-Sutherland spent most of the meeting outlining how the students would proceed with papers and projects. She refused to dwell on what was behind her.

“You can’t change it, so why spend the energy,” she said. “Change your perspective. Move forward.”

That summer, she underwent chemotherapy and continued teaching online courses. She remained accessible to her students. She showed up for meetings, phoning in when she was too sick to attend in person. In early fall, she had a double mastectomy. Less than six weeks later, she joined her graduate students in San Diego at an international research conference, a conference she helped to organize.

Her husband, full of worry, found few surprises in how his wife handled the months after her diagnosis.

“Many of our discussions around the dinner table often are about how she can help her students with any issues they may be facing,” Sutherland said.

Graduate student Michele Bechor uses EEG in Reeb-Sutherland’s Brain and Behavior Development Lab

But her reach extends well beyond the classroom. Reeb-Sutherland’s research is uncovering mysteries about how social and emotional behaviors develop in children, including anxiety. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to detect and record electrical activity in the brain, she examines individual differences in socio-emotional behavior. She also examines biological and environmental factors, including maternal depression, influencing development, and behavior. As she was navigating cancer treatments, the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences notified her that she would receive the 2017 Early Career Impact Award for her major contributions to advancing the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior.

Today, Reeb-Sutherland has shed the title of cancer patient, though it will be years before she can say with certainty if she is cancer-free. She has reclaimed her stride though her students point out her dedication and optimism never wavered. Four of those currently working in Reeb-Sutherland’s lab recently nominated her for the FIU Provost Award for Mentorship of graduate students.

“She never put us on the back-burner even when we, ourselves, asked her to,” wrote Ph.D. candidate Michelle Ramos in her nomination. “She never dropped the ball on us, and in turn, we strived to never drop the ball on her.”

Nearly one year since the original cancer diagnosis, Reeb-Sutherland received the award during the FIU Graduate Student Appreciation Week.

“While there’s obviously never a good time to be sick, it was particularly heartbreaking to see Bethany fight through this at this young age, life stage and point in her career,” her husband said. “But the silver lining is that all of this has motivated Bethany to pursue new research into ways to help mothers, children and their families better cope with the emotional distress surrounding cancer diagnosis and treatment.”


JoAnn Adkins contributed to this story.