Alumni Profile: Cynthia Belar ’65
Designing Better Mousetraps
By Abigail Hill ’12
Dr. Cynthia Belar was born and raised in Palmyra, a little town in New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia. Among her family were grandfathers on both sides who were inventors, a mother who introduced her early on to volunteer work with children with cerebral palsy, and a father whose work in acoustical engineering led to patents for an electronic music synthesizer and the phonetic (speech recognition) typewriter. It is easy to understand how Belar developed an interest in caring for others and what she described as “designing better mousetraps,” a desire to contribute to society.
Like her father, Belar aspired to be an engineer, but was deterred by the response she received as the sole female student in her mechanical drawing class. “Being a woman didn’t agree with the social norms for engineering at that time,” she explained. So, she packed up her pencils and decided she might do well as an elementary school teacher instead.
In 1963 she began studies at Wesley College to learn secretarial skills in her pursuit to become a teacher. “Being a secretary or teacher were the main career paths for women [at that time],” Belar explained. It was at Wesley that a professor in general psychology, Dr. Ronald Tietbohl, encouraged her to consider additional options. “I had been asked to do a block design demonstration for the classroom and he seemed to take an interest in my potential. After that, he planted a seed that I had not considered before.”
Always having been interested in behavior, Belar fell in love with the human psyche, and her desire to help people secured her calling as a psychologist. Consequently, she left Wesley to pursue a major in psychology at Rutger’s University. She completed her final credits through the University of Maryland in Peshawar, Pakistan, while working as a medical secretary at the 7219th U.S. Air Force Dispensary and soon thereafter, graduated summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree.
In 1970, Belar began graduate study in clinical psychology at Ohio University. She had moved to Athens, Ohio and requested admission to the program only days before classes started. Surprisingly, the department took a chance and included her in the incoming class. Beginning her internship, she again noticed the imbalance of the male to female ratio in the sciences. Despite being a minority in her field, however, Belar would not be deterred again and was determined to make her mark in the sphere of clinical psychology. She hastily completed the program in just four years, including an internship, and earned her PhD in psychology. She then continued her career path in the study and advancement of psychology as a professor, scholar, clinician, educator and administrator.
Belar's first exposure to medical psychology was during her 1973-1974 internship at Duke University Medical Center, where a seminar on Thomas H. Budzynski's new research in biofeedback and tension headaches excited her clinical and research interests. She became committed to the study of psychophysiologieal components of pain as well as the expansion of psychological services in general health care.
As a clinical psychologist, Belar worked primarily with adults with a range of medical problems. Her research centered on psychophysiology and pain management. She participated in research, practice, education and training simultaneously throughout her career. “I wanted to help people, understand how I could do it better through research, and teach others for careers in research and practice so they could expand my individual reach.”
As a faculty member in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida Health Science Center, Belar developed academic and clinical tracks in medical psychology at the doctoral, internship and postdoctoral levels, later garnering the distinction of professor emerita. Her research has encompassed the areas of psychosocial aspects of illness, applied psychophysiology and reproductive endocrinology.
Outside of the university realm, Belar’s professional contributions have been far-reaching. From 1984-1990, she served as chief psychologist and clinical director of behavioral medicine for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program in Los Angeles. There she developed a number of integrated health programs for both primary and specialty care. As a leader in her profession, she has chaired three national conferences on education and training in psychology, covering topics such as internship, postdoctoral training and the scientist-practitioner model. She also has chaired the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers, the Council of Chairs of Training Councils, and the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology. She was past president of the American Psychological Association (APA) Division of Health Psychology and the American Board of Clinical Health Psychology and now serves on the senior executive management team for the APA, an organization consisting of 150,000 members. In addition, Belar has the distinction of being the first person to initiate an HMO postdoctoral fellowship program in behavioral medicine.
Given the breadth of her professional success, it is not surprising that she has a laundry list of accolades for her work. Those presented to her by the APA include the 1996 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Education and Training in Psychology, the first Timothy B. Jeffrey Award for Outstanding Contributions to Clinical Health Psychology, and the Alfred M. Wellner Memorial Award in 2005. She also was the inaugural recipient of the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Clinical Health Psychology in 2000 and most recently in 2008, was presented the Paul Nelson Award for Outstanding Contributions to Education and Training.
In her current role as executive director of the APA’s Education Directorate, preparing psychologists for diverse careers, expanding continuing education and shaping academic partnerships are Belar’s top priorities. She was initially attracted to the executive director position because it offered her a chance to have a national impact on training and education, molding the next generation of clinical psychologists. At the same time, she fulfills the mission and vision of the APA through expanding and furthering the reach of psychology in education.
In her time away from the world of psychology, Belar enjoys life in Washington D.C. alongside her husband Jean-Louis Monfralx, a professional musician and zoology graduate student. These days the two of them love to travel and they spend much of their time away from work doing just that.
As one who has not only furthered her own studies but been an advocate for education throughout her career, Belar does not underestimate the power of teachers. Fondly remembering how Dr. Tietbohl encouraged her and ultimately impacted her life-long profession, she advises current Wesley students to take advantage of those same opportunities to be inspired and guided by their professors. “There are many faculty who can and want to serve as important mentors – you don’t have to do it all on your own.”