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member spotlights

If you are interested in being in the Member Spotlight in the future, please contact Heather A. Okvat at or (480)486-6141.

Dr. Carolyn Cavanaugh Toft

Membership Representative Heather A. Okvat recently sat down with Dr. Carolyn Cavanaugh Toft to learn more about this fascinating and delightful AZPA member of over 20 years.

AZPA/HAO: Where did you grow up, and how do you feel this shaped who you are?

Dr. C.: In the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. It’s a blue-collar town, and there’s a closeness there. I remember blizzards where everyone worked together to shovel each other’s driveways. After each driveway they’d go inside to share food and drink and stories while they warmed up, and then they would go back out. Neighbors knew each other, and even though people did come from different walks of life and had different beliefs, they were all part of one community. We didn’t have to convince each other that one position was right. Everyone agreed on one thing—“Go Bills.” I think growing up in Buffalo led to looking to be helpful, looking for the best in people, and keeping an eye out for folks.

AZPA/HAO: What early experiences led you to a career in psychology?

Dr. C: Both of my parents were psychologists, which definitely had an impact on me. My dad worked at the New York State Psychiatric Hospital, in the state prison system, and in the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. He talked about inmates and clients as people who have a story that tells how they got where they are. My mom worked in many different clinical settings (including polio survivors in Iron Lungs) and also private practice. Hearing a little bit about people who were really struggling made a big impression. So whatever other areas I explored for a career, I kept coming back to psychology because it’s just so interesting. What’s the narrative behind what’s happening for people that can help to unravel the knots of problems they’re experiencing?

AZPA/HAO: Where did you earn your degrees, and when did you become licensed?

Dr. C.: My bachelor’s in psychology was from Duke University (Durham NC). My master’s and doctoral degrees were both in clinical psychology from Arizona State University (ASU; Tempe AZ). I became a licensed clinical psychologist in Arizona in 1998.

AZPA/HAO: When did you join AZPA and what were some of the initial benefits for you?

Dr. C.: I joined AZPA soon after finishing my PhD. It just seemed like a good thing to do. I found membership helpful in the early years of my career for seeking postdoctoral supervision, looking for jobs, and building a private practice. It’s continued to be helpful for referrals.

AZPA/HAO: Could you describe your current work?

Dr. C.: I have one foot in a small clinical practice with some focus on health psychology and eating disorders (not currently taking new clients), one foot in teaching and administration, and both feet rooted in research. I’m a Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology at ASU. I currently teach Intro to Psych, with a focus on how psychology is related to you whether you’re majoring in English, nursing, or business; Psychological Disorders; and Psychological Disorders in Children and Adolescents. I also teach our Early Start class, an 8-day immersive summer program for incoming first-year ASU students who’ve been identified as at risk of drop-out. Many are first-generation college students, many are students of color, and some have not done as well academically as other incoming first-years. This year, we did tours of psychology and neuroscience labs, visited Barrow Neurological Institute to see psychology and neuroscience in action, and visited the Phoenix Zoo to talk about principles of conditioning in different animal species. It’s intense, about 40-45 hours for 40-49 students, but it’s a great deal of fun.

In terms of administration, I’m the Teaching Faculty Area Head for the ASU Department of Psychology, where we have 15 teaching faculty who each teach 4 undergraduate classes in Psychology and Neuroscience each semester. I’m also the Associate Director of Student Well-being and Opportunities for Connection and Success in the Department of Psychology at ASU. We help students know about resources that they can take advantage of proactively, to have not only academic success but a good life. What doors are there that they can open? It might be a club, volunteer opportunity, or some other extracurricular activity. Or it might be working in a psychology research lab, where they can see that it’s not all benches and pipettes, but could involve learning to conduct standardized interviews and behavioral coding that can translate into a future career that’s not necessarily research-focused, including doing clinical work. In terms of wellness (a term that students hate by the way), we look at what opportunities are there for healthy behavior, like building healthy friendships, learning mindfulness skills, and developing effective coping skills.

AZPA/HAO: You’ve received awards for Excellence in Teaching and Most Influential Professor. What philosophies or practices do you believe led to your nominations and awards?

Dr. C.: I’m always incredibly floored to hear I’ve been nominated. I’ve been privileged to have had great teachers and professors. And I’m a psychology nerd--I love learning and having those “Aha!” moments where a lightbulb goes off. My goal is to instill that love of learning in students. And I’ve been influenced by my mother, who came from a Jewish tradition, to see education as the answer to problems, and that knowledge is power. Also, my husband is a high school teacher and fellow nerd, so this all gets reinforced at our home. I’ve always loved my work and I feel lucky to get paid to do it.

AZPA/HAO: What are your passions right now, inside or outside psychology? Any career aspirations?

Dr. C.: I love to travel. My husband and I just returned from a “bucket list” trip to the Galapagos Islands, where we got to see so many amazing species of animals close up and learn about conservation strategies. I’m also fascinated by Scandinavian countries. These are some of the healthiest countries with the happiest people the world, in spite of the increased risk of seasonal affective disorder, as they live in areas with significantly less sunlight during the winter. What’s happening with this paradox? What’s the story? What are the nuances? With these questions in mind, I’m creating a study abroad program for the first time ever, where students will take a 3-week trip to visit these countries in 2025 and investigate the biopsychosocial factors that impact wellbeing. I hope that students will learn about the different cultures and perhaps take away things that they can incorporate into their lives to improve their own well-being and the well-being of those around them.

AZPA/HAO: A passion for me is climate change and responding to it by changing systems to provide a better quality of life and mitigate the crisis at the same time, especially by growing food locally in community gardens/farms/orchards. In Arizona, the climate crisis/challenge is alive. We are facing more extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and unexpected weather events like record-breaking snowfall in northern Arizona this past winter and record-breaking intense heat this summer with 31 straight days over 110 degrees. Any thoughts on how this will affect psychologists and the public and what we as psychologists could or should be doing to address it?

Dr. C.: College students are scared. My own (college age) kids are scared. When I worry about the future, I often ask myself what I can do in my small corner of the world to help. As psychologists, how can we help people make little changes and instill hope? I saw a documentary with our Early Start students at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, Jane Goodall - Reasons for Hope. The film was a great antidote to the hopelessness that has come with hearing about wildfires, hurricanes, melting polar caps, extreme heat…and…and…and. It features stories about people’s work around the world, including in Arizona, that inspire hope. Here in AZ, they talked about the MechanicalTreeTM at ASU, right near the light rail station in Tempe at the intersection of Rural and University. It was developed by ASU professor Klaus Lackner and colleagues, and passively collects up to 200 pounds of carbon dioxide per day. It reminds me of a quote, “hope is a discipline.” [Link here for more on this quote from Mariame Kaba, a social justice activist, educator, writer, and organizer]. I like that sentiment, as it encourages us to focus on what we can do to make positive changes, especially when we feel helpless. Whether it’s planting trees, community gardens, or mechanical trees, there is reason for hope. Jane Goodall said that we humans have intellect and have been able to solve problems; people are doing good things—we can find them and help them. Hope is a muscle we have to exercise.

AZPA/HAO: What has kept you a member of AZPA for so many years?

Dr. C.: AZPA provides access to a wide pool of really bright people who are in various ways leaders in psychology. The conversations on the list-serv are fun and interesting, such as discussions about ethical dilemmas and legal issues--how to think about them and handle these situations.

AZPA/HAO: How can AZPA support you further?

Dr. C.:  Many undergraduates are interested in clinical work in one of the helping professions. They have to do informational interviews, in person or online, as a requirement for two classes—Introduction to Clinical Psychology and Pathways in Psychology. It would be great to have a resource list of psychologists who would be open to this.

If you are open to helping with this, perhaps doing one interview per year, please email to let her know; thank you.

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