Posted on March 2, 2023
Suniya S. Luthar passed on February 16, 2023 at the age of 64 after two years of increasing health difficulties. In addition to being a beloved mother, sister, friend, mentor, and teacher, Suniya was a distinguished developmental and clinical psychologist and internationally renowned scholar in resilience research; her career was focused on understanding processes in resilience among diverse at-risk groups and on applying insights in prevention. Suniya was deeply committed to developing community-based interventions and leaves behind a rich body of scientific publications.
Born in New Delhi, India, on December 9, 1958, Suniya was the second of three daughters. She graduated high school in 1975 at Delhi Public School and completed a bachelors and masters degree in Child Development at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi. In 1984, she enrolled in doctoral studies at Yale University under the mentorship of Edward Zigler. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1990, Suniya did a clinical internship at the Yale Child Study Center and then served on the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and the Child Study Center at Yale. Between 1997 and 2013, she was at Columbia University’s Teachers College and between 2014 and 2019, was Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. Suniya also founded AC Groups, a nonprofit organization that provides supportive evidence-based interventions in hospitals, schools, and university settings, and co-founded the organization Authentic Connections Co., alongside her daughter, Nina Kumar, to assess and improve mental health and well-being in schools. The AC Groups organization is led by Kimber Bogard, Board Chair, a former student of Suniya’s at Columbia.
Suniya’s career was focused on understanding processes in resilience among diverse at-risk groups, and on applying insights in prevention. She was a prolific writer with ground-breaking scientific contributions; her 2000 co-authored paper on conceptual issues in resilience is the single most often referenced article in the area. In the 1990’s, she published a series of studies – including her doctoral dissertation – on youth and families in poverty. In the late 1990’s, she discovered unique risks and problems among teens in affluent communities. This led to a rich program of research culminating in assertions -- by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and by major news outlets -- that youth in high achieving communities are an “at-risk group”.
Alongside her research on processes in resilience, Suniya remained deeply committed to developing community-based interventions for mothers, with the understanding that for children to “be resilient”, their primary caregivers had to be doing well. She had two NIH funded five-year grants for the relational group therapy she developed for low-income mothers with histories of addiction and serious mental illness.
Suniya’s contributions to the field of Psychology were recognized by several organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Association for Psychological Science, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Society for Research in Child Development, the National Institutes of Health, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the Society for Research on Adolescence, and the Center for Integrative Developmental Science at Cornell University.
During the fall of 2022 as her symptoms became increasingly disabling, Suniya stepped back from her professional commitments. In the last two months, she and her dear friend, Mary Wiley, were very happy to have visits in their shared Arizona home with Suniya’s children, Nikhil and Nina Kumar, and their respective partners, Molly Wharton and Alex Lederman; her sisters, Anju Seth and Karuna Luthar, and brother-in-law Mohan Kumar; and also several friends and colleagues. Suniya also was able to connect virtually with friends from her days in high school and college in India and with her mother, Naresh Luthar, and dear friend of the family, Tom Benenson. She left in peace, deeply grateful for the love of all. Ongoing initiatives focused on her professional work and legacy are supported by her son Nik Kumar, daughter Nina Kumar, and Mary Wiley.