By Catherine Donnelly
Dr. Catherine Heimback-Murdie, DSW ’22, MSW ’03, always wanted to be a doctor, but her path to completing a doctorate was a long and winding one.
“From the age of 5, my dream was to be a pediatrician. I would give my dolls yearly physicals and even kept medical records on them! I was completely focused on that dream as a child; I excelled in school and won a full scholarship to attend Canisius College.” she said. “But the rigor of the pre-med curriculum derailed me. I had never struggled before and was in danger of losing my scholarship. My advisor asked me to focus on what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to help people and work with kids. They suggested I try a psychology class since I needed to complete a required element and explore a new path. I fell in love with the courses, and my grades returned to all As.”
As a rising senior, she began the process of applying to clinical psychology programs. One of her teachers asked why she wasn’t looking at social work programs.
“I wanted to build a career that would play to my strengths and help children,” Heimback-Murdie continued. “I am embarrassed to say that I thought social workers just took people’s kids away. But my professor insisted I consider the career. However, due to my naivete and ignorance about moving up to graduate school, I missed application deadlines and needed to take a year off.”
She found jobs working as a nursery school teacher and as a dietary aide in a nursing home. Both experiences helped her identify more clearly what she wanted to do versus what she did not want to do. She also learned that UB offered a part-time MSW focused on mental health and children and families. She successfully completed that degree in 2003 to become an LMSW and took a job working at Child and Adolescent Treatment Services. In 2007, she completed the New York State Office of Mental Health Civil Service Exam for social work and moved to a position at the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center. In 2011, she passed the licensure exam to become an LCSW. With the additional experience she gained at WNY CPC, Heimback-Murdie completed the requirements to earn her psychotherapy R privilege in 2018.
In addition to building her career, Heimback-Murdie got married, bought a house, and started a family.
“I have to admit that even with being incredibly busy and happy, the dream to be a “doctor” always stayed with me. Over the years, I looked at doctoral programs, but they were not conducive to my life. I figured I could go back to school when my children were older. And then UB developed this incredible online, part-time DSW in Social Welfare program. I was a bit nervous about being in the first cohort, but my husband was very supportive, and it seemed that the online work would match up with my free time.”
Heimback-Murdie found the focus on technology and the use of social media in building a professional collaboration network to be challenging, but she embraced the process and even launched a blog called "Catherine's Field of Ideas."
“I ended up loving the tech changes in education, and I learned so many new ways to offer specialized treatment options. Our cohort was from all over the US. We had a mandatory orientation session to meet one another (UB’s DSW is now fully virtual), but then everything else was online. I am proud to say we pulled each other through, and all 16 of my classmates graduated this May,” she said. “I have to thank the professors for being so supportive. I remember talking to Dr. Bakk on the phone on a Sunday night struggling over one of my first papers, and Dr. Semanchin-Jones helped me stay on track with my capstone project after I was delayed with my work due to an illness.”
Heimback-Murdie’s capstone work focused on implementing the use of collaborative care cognitive behavioral therapy in a residential setting for adolescents. She worked with a group in Rochester to create tools the agency can use when they hire new staff to ensure any intervention lasts.
“Children who need help experience the greatest success when each of their caregivers shares information and works together on certain goals,” she said. “However, the pandemic complicated my capstone project, and I was unable to study the impact of the program on youth outcomes. I will continue to support rolling out the intervention because I feel strongly about this approach to treatment.”
She currently works at the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center where many of the trauma-informed care, research techniques, and interaction therapy techniques she learned at UB help her impact families daily. While she plans to continue working with the youth at WNYCPC for the time being, Heimback-Murdie will also be joining UB as an adjunct professor in both the MSW and DSW programs in the fall.
“I want to share one more point about this online doctorate. I am so happy that I got to do this with my family watching. My daughter was only 5 when I started it. My kids would ask me what I was working on, how my paper was coming, peek over my computer at what I was writing, or just hug me. They watched me cry when my original capstone fell apart, and I thought my dream was over. They watched me persevere,” she said. “On graduation day, when Dr. Bakk was hooding me, I heard my son yell ‘Dr. Mom.’ I am grateful to UB for helping me achieve my lifelong dream.”