8 Leaders in Psychiatric Research Discuss the Contributions of Steve Lieber

Posted: August 11, 2020
8 Leaders in Psychiatric Research Discuss the Contributions of Steve Lieber

We asked several members of BBRF’s Scientific Council to reflect upon Steve Lieber’s remarkable personality, his contribution to philanthropy, and to the field of mental illness research.

William T. Carpenter, Jr., M.D.
University of Maryland School of Medicine
BBRF Scientific Council
2019 Pardes Humanitarian Prize
2000 Lieber Prize
2008, 2001, 1996 BBRF Distinguished Investigator

Steve Lieber will certainly be missed. I first met him when he became involved with the precursor of BBRF, which we called NARSAD. It was around the third year of NARSAD’s existence. Steve and his wife Connie had met Herb Pardes at a Columbia University meeting and struck up a friendship. This was in the 1980s.

From extraordinarily humble beginnings, and thanks to the relationship with the Liebers initiated by Herb, NARSAD began to gather momentum. This was when Connie came in. She was “no nonsense.” The key was Connie’s success in forming a Board that understood that decisions about what science to support was for the Scientific Council to decide; the Board members were responsible for finding, providing, and approving the funding. This was a critical shift from a Board that was challenged to raise funds but with strong views on what science is acceptable. This change was critical for success and launched NARSAD, now BBRF, on the path to becoming the most significant foundation supporting the acquisition of knowledge to enhance the understanding and care of persons with mental illness.

The Liebers gave strong support to the BBRF Young Investigator grant program. The reason was clear. At the beginning of BBRF there were far too few young scientists addressing schizophrenia and depression, the illnesses BBRF focused on at the time of its founding. Connie and Steve understood this need and pushed the funding. In a short period of time the Young Investigator award was the career launching program for today’s skilled and successful mental illness scientific community. While Connie and Steve left the science to the scientists, they pushed hard for success in funding our initiatives. And each year, if we didn’t have enough money for every high-quality grant, they would somehow assure sufficient funds were raised to protect the Young Investigator program. The program has been extremely successful—the critical first competitive funding success for today’s leading investigators. It’s had a great impact on the field.

My direct involvement with Steve would come with Scientific Council meetings or the annual gala and awards ceremony. My wife and I treasured these times. His modesty and humanitarian qualities were quietly, but always, present.

Connie and Steve were clear about what they wanted and how they wanted to go about it. And they were steadfast in that. Both were consistent in terms of the mission and how to plan the future. They knew how to make all this happen without drawing attention to themselves.

Robert R. Freedman, M.D.
University of Colorado School of Medicine
BBRF Scientific Council
2015 Lieber Prize
2006, 1999 Distinguished Investigator Grant

There’s a story I will always remember. I think the year was 1989—the organization we then called NARSAD (now BBRF) had only been in existence for about 2 years. We had gotten a number of grants in our laboratory, Young Investigator grants that had been awarded to a number of our young people.

I was at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in Toronto, and I saw this couple approaching me, and I looked at the name tag and I saw that it was Connie and Steve Lieber. I’d never met them, and I went up to them and introduced myself. I said, “I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for our laboratory’s young people.” They immediately said, “Oh, Dr. Freedman. How is your work going on auditory gating? How is Dr. Hunter doing with her developmental studies? Is Dr. Ross still working on childhood-onset schizophrenia? Is Dr. Olincy helping you with the medication development?” They listed in detail each of the grants to our Young Investigators. They wanted to know how each of them was doing, developing in their careers as well as the status of their projects.

The wind was beginning to blow. The convention center was about a mile from the convention hotel. I thought, “This couple is not going to make it back up that hill to the hotel,” so I hailed a cab and I put them in the back seat, and we drove up to the hotel. A small detail is that I paid the cab driver, and I’ve always been glad that in light of all that Steve and Connie have done for me and for all of my people, I was at least able to pay for a cab ride for Steve Lieber.

I wrote Steve and Connie afterward that I was so impressed. The funding meant a lot, but what really meant something to me was how involved personally they were in the meaning of the funding, of what it meant for the people who got it, and what it was designed to do. I had never encountered that in anyone else before. To be that interested in the research itself, not just saying, “Well, I’ve done something nice for schizophrenia, but I’m not sure what those people do.” No, this was quite different. The two of them, each of them, knew exactly what was going on. They were trying to build scientists’ careers with the grants. And that, I have always thought, was just amazing.

John H. Krystal, M.D.
Yale University School of Medicine
BBRF Scientific Council
2019 Colvin Prize
2006, 2000 BBRF Distinguished Investigator
1997 Independent Investigator

Steve Lieber is gone. His leadership, and that of Connie, was the backbone of NARSAD and BBRF. Under their stewardship, BBRF became the most important private foundation supporting mental health research. I have seen, first hand, the impact of BBRF Young Investigator Awards upon the careers of countless young scientists. Each one wondering how they would get their start. Each one using the opportunity of a Young Investigator Award to move them forward. Through it all, Steve and Connie remained curious about the science and uniquely supportive of the scientists, asking about our families and our careers. As I write this, I note that I refer to Steve and Connie as if they were still together to the end. I suppose that is how I think of them, as part of a very special partnership. Steve’s passing marks the end of an era for BBRF and for psychiatric science. We are all deeply in his debt. I will miss him.

Helen S. Mayberg, M.D.
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
BBRF Scientific Council
2007 Falcone Prize
2002 BBRF Distinguished Investigator
1995 Independent Investigator
1991 Young Investigator

Thinking of my interactions with Steve Lieber over the years, what strikes me is his warmth and seriousness, but also his ability to look at a problem and find the kernel that was really important. There was a deliberateness, a pragmatism accompanied by this deep, earnest sharing, and singular focus on the problem. There was a balance—between caring deeply, but also having radical candor about what’s needed to accomplish the goal.

You have to have empathy, you have to want to solve the problem, but you also have to have the discipline, the resolve to solve the problem and to be creative about how to approach a problem that doesn’t have an obvious solution. Steve never seemed frustrated by the fact that the problem was hard. It just made him more resolute. He was able to use his position to direct and advise and learn. It was always an iteration. It was always, “Help me to understand this so I can factor it into my own thinking.”

He was never overly emotional, never hysterical about the urgency of the problem. His attitude was: “This is a hard problem. It will take resolute decision making and strategic planning to beat it. And I may not live to beat it, but I will give it everything I’ve got until I just can’t do it anymore.” And that’s very admirable.

What makes a great leader is that circumstances can change and you have to be adaptive. You’re trying to get from point A to point B; you set out a course and you have a map—and it turns out the map is wrong, or the map is old, or something’s happened and you’ve got to adapt. Steve was just voracious in wanting to take in more information so that he could follow our progress. I think he definitely enjoyed learning about new things. And I think that he genuinely enjoyed seeing that my trajectory had critical anchor points in early grants I received from the Foundation, which meant that it played a fundamental role, from the very beginning, in my progress. I always felt like he was rooting for me, personally.

My very modest interactions with Steve have, over a lifetime, had a profound impact on me. And this helps me realize how tied we are to people. We influence each other. Over the years, this has an indelible impact on who we are and how we evolve. So he’s in here, in me, and I’m reminded that we have to think about this when people are gone—to think about how we may be different because of our interaction.

Thinking of the impact of Steve and Connie, I think it was the wisdom of their effort to enable a community—the community of researchers— to solve the very difficult problem of mental illness. It’s the pragmatic realization that there isn’t one solution. There’s the appreciation that, as in money management, it pays to have a diversified portfolio. Steve and Connie created an environment that has enabled thousands of researchers to attack the problem from many different angles at once.

Herbert Y. Meltzer, M.D.
Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
BBRF Scientific Council
1992 Lieber Prize
2007, 2000, 1994, 1988 BBRF Distinguished Investigator

Steve Lieber was enormously creative in his unending efforts, even to the day he died, to eliminate the scourge of mental illness. The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, the Lieber Prize for Schizophrenia Research, other BBRF awards for accomplishments in psychiatric service and research, and the Lieber Institute are unparalleled legacies of his philanthropy and enlightened leadership.

Steve’s devotion to this task was initially stimulated by his desire to help his daughter and led to a call to me in 1990, after the publication of the benefits of clozapine in treatmentresistant schizophrenia. He sought guidance on clozapine’s use, and expressed support for my research on that drug and its successors, which he did for many years, culminating in an offer from Herb Pardes to be the first Lieber Professor at Columbia. I declined that offer for personal reasons, but we continued a warm relationship until the time of Steve’s death, linked by our shared desire to improve outcome in mental illness.

Many throughout the world sought my advice on clozapine, to assuage their anxieties about its riskiness, but only Steve and his beloved wife Connie embraced the idea that if even more effective treatments than clozapine were to be developed, they would come only through profound knowledge of the working of the brain and the many ways in which it can malfunction. Thus, they joined me and others who founded NARSAD to develop it as a vehicle to attract and train the best minds to the field of neuroscience.

Steve was willing to devote enormous amounts of time and resources to build NARSAD, now BBRF, into the world’s leading private resource for training and supporting researchers to devote their careers to the understanding and treatment of the brain and mental illness. On a personal note, I will treasure his graciousness and warmth, his interest in my current research on new treatments, like pimavanserin, the first non-dopamine based antipsychotic drug to be approved by the FDA, which his philanthropy enabled me to develop from clozapine. I deeply regret that I will not be able to share with him the new generation of drugs for schizophrenia I have discovered. They have the Lieber imprint on them as well, for sure.

Eric J. Nestler, M.D., Ph.D.
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
BBRF Scientific Council
2009 Falcone Prize
2008 Goldman- Rakic Prize
1996 BBRF Distinguished Investigator

NARSAD—now BBRF— began issuing its now wellestablished Young Investigator awards in 1987, the same year that I joined the faculty at Yale. I remember very well the dramatic impact that these awards, and NARSAD overall, had on psychiatry research at the time. Now, over 30 years later, several generations of young researchers in psychiatry have benefited from BBRF’s generosity in helping to launch their careers, with Independent and Distinguished Investigator awards programs contributing to sustaining those careers, including my own. Steve Lieber, and his wife Connie Lieber, thereby transformed the landscape of our field. They were tireless advocates for our fellow citizens who suffer from mental illness and for us researchers dedicated to better understanding and treating these disorders. Their kindness and generosity of spirit were boundless. While we miss Steve and Connie terribly, their timeless vision is embodied very well in the dominant role played by BBRF in advancing research into mental illness.

Daniel Weinberger, M.D.
Johns Hopkins University
Lieber Institute for Brain Development
BBRF Scientific Council
1993 Lieber Prize
2000, 1990 BBRF Distinguished Investigator

Steve Lieber was an inspirational patron of mental health research and his devotion to matters other than himself was limitless. He was for me, a personal friend, a colleague, and a mentor. The last 12 years of my professional life were closely intertwined with Steve in the shared pursuit of a new solution to an old problem: what are the causes of schizophrenia and how might we better treat it? The project we shared, to establish an innovative, worldclass “bricks-and-mortar” institute, moved us in directions that we never imagined. None of what has been accomplished at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in the past 9 years would have been possible without his exceptional intelligence, his insights, and his commitment. In our weekly telephone conferences, I looked forward to Steve’s comments and to his invariably prescient advice. Our calls were rarely about budgets or operational details, though they occasionally included such subjects; they were always about science. Steve and Connie were interested in what was happening that was exciting, from where breakthroughs were coming, and where progress was in new drug development. Steve didn’t just listen. He made substantive suggestions and gave feedback. As I have said repeatedly, Steve was a fountain of ideas, and most of them were put into action because they were good and right. I used to say to him that I viewed myself as the luckiest man in the world because I was given the historic opportunity to work with him (and Connie) on building a unique scientific institution and because I had their good faith and support. The faith that Steve and Connie put in me to lead this effort humbled me profoundly. Steve was a singular example of selflessness, commitment, humility, and unparalleled generosity.

I knew Steve and Connie for over 35 years. We shared an interest in how early brain development set the stage for early adult problems. Our personal interactions were numerous, at scientific meetings which they regularly attended until around 2010, at occasional lunches and dinners, at the BBRF gala at which they bestowed upon me the esteemed Lieber Prize, and at BBRF annual events as a member of the Scientific Council.

It’s hard for me on Sundays without my reality checks with Steve. I miss informing him of the latest discovery, of the progress we are making in so many areas and of the fact that in less than a decade his institute has developed four new treatments for serious medical illnesses. The day I write this we received a major offer to out-license one of the signature drug products of the Institute, something I talked with Steve about literally every Sunday for the past six years. It is heartbreaking that I cannot share with him this exciting news that would have made him very pleased. I miss him deeply and my thoughts are of him and Connie, of Sam, and of the Lieber Family. I know that Steve would want us to continue on the path he laid out for us and walked with us. My commitment to realize the Lieber Family vision—that research will change the lives of people affected by serious mental disorders—has never been stronger.

Myrna Weissman, Ph.D.
Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University
BBRF Scientific Council
1994 Selo Prize
2005, 2000, 1991 BBRF Distinguished Investigator

Steve Lieber was an extraordinary man. He was very modest and very talented, very smart. This was the kind of man who, if there was a problem, didn’t whine or complain. He said, “How are we going to solve it?” And that’s how he handled BBRF, which was called NARSAD in the beginning.

Steve was a very modest man. He didn’t look for attention. He and his wife, Connie, did what they did because they really believed in it—and they wanted to do a good job. They weren’t looking to have parties where they could wear their best clothes or get their picture in the paper. They stayed in the background because everything was for the cause, and it was a cause they believed in so strongly, arising from their own family tragedy. Usually, when people are funding something, they want to get a lot of recognition for it. It’s part of who they are and how they’re seen in the public. This was not Connie and this was not Steve.

Steve was totally devoted to Connie in a wonderful way. When a couple is involved in a cause, it is typically the man who gets the attention, the credit. It’s often assumed that “it was the man’s idea.” But I was part of many discussions where there would be an idea and Steve would make it quite clear that the idea was Connie’s. “That’s Connie. Talk to Connie about that.” It was because the idea was hers and he didn’t want to take it away from her. During the many years when Connie served as president of the organization, he would step aside, knowing he could rely on her because she was smart. She was capable and she was as committed as he was.

Steve listened to people. He didn’t just kow-tow to people in power or authority. He listened to people who had something to say. He did not suffer fools. He chose well. He knew who to trust. He chose what he thought was of high quality and he was very supportive. He was looking to have the job done and to get the best people on the team. He didn’t care if everybody else got the credit. He knew a lot. He read a lot and that’s how he was able to choose talent and let them go with it.

At the start of my career, I received funding from (what was then) NARSAD to get pilot data. Steve and Connie supported innovative research, risky research, and they agreed with the Scientific Council, which made sure that they didn’t drive you crazy with 300 pages of grant writing. If you look broadly at the people who’ve had BBRF grants over the decades, they are extraordinary and they were chosen by a committee who had two or three pages about their dreams and the names of their mentors. Asking for that salient information but not a voluminous file on each applicant was part of what made the organization successful. It was something that Steve and Connie Lieber supported. They understood how to determine quality and let the experts on the Council do their job.

Another thing they did that was very important: they saw to it that all the money the public gave would go for research. The administrative extras and events were funded by them. If they were going to have a benefit or a party or a meeting, the Liebers paid for it. But if you gave $50 to support research, you could be certain that it went to that research.

In losing Connie Lieber some years back, and now Steve, we have suffered a tremendous loss.

Click here to read the Brain & Behavior Magazine's August 2020 issue

Tags