Meet the Researcher: Wizdom Powell, Health Disparities

Wizdom Powell is director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health.
Wizdom Powell is director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health.

In a recent conversation over coffee with Wizdom Powell, PhD, director of UConn’s Health Disparities Institute (HDI), two words kept popping up: commitment and passion. Powell leaves no doubt that she is both committed and passionate when it comes to her work, the communities she serves, and improving health outcomes for underrepresented populations.

Powell, who is also associate professor of psychiatry at UConn Health, came to UConn in August 2017 after having spent the last decade at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Powell is an internationally recognized expert in the field of health disparities. Her own community-based research focuses primarily on the role of modern racism and gender norms on African American male health outcomes and healthcare inequities.

“Dr. Powell is nationally recognized and respected. She has brought a tremendous level and a new dimension of research expertise to existing efforts at UConn Health to address health disparities,” says Dr. Bruce Liang, dean of the UConn School of Medicine. “Her research on health issues of men and boys of color is having an impact as we work to reshape the future of medicine and improve health equity.”

In her first six months as director of HDI, Powell has dedicated much of her time to meeting with community organizations, legislators, and other regional stakeholders to immerse herself in this new landscape.  According to Powell, Connecticut is well positioned to address health disparities and advance health equity because of the culture of healthcare innovation that exists here, as well as a need to bring parity to the care received by different socioeconomic groups in the state.

“Connecticut is ripe for these types of conversations and actions,” says Powell. “We’ve got a well activated insurance industry, ongoing public discourse and innovation around healthcare and treatments, world-class research institutions like UConn and Jackson Labs, and legislators committed to seeing a change. Our goal at HDI is to collaborate strategically and become part of the fabric of the community to move the needle in a major way.”

Powell’s current research is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and is exploring how neighborhood conditions and daily stress impact substance abuse risk among young adult black males. Powell says she hopes to learn the best ways to intervene in the moment to help young men of color more positively cope, self-regulate, and find support or a friend in whom they can confide. The study findings will contribute to the expansion of scientific knowledge on men’s mental health, especially in the young adult black male population.

Dr. Powell Goes to Washington

No stranger to tackling big challenges, Powell has experience getting a lot done quickly and in spite of bureaucratic hurdles and red tape. In 2011-2012, she was appointed by President Obama to serve as a White House Fellow. Established in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the White House Fellows program is a highly selective opportunity for the intellectual elite to gain first-hand experience in national government.

Due to her clinical experience treating veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at the Ann Arbor, Michigan VA Healthcare System, Powell was assigned to serve then Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, in the U.S. Department of Defense.

From the arduous vetting process to being one of the only woman of color working in the Pentagon, Powell says remaining committed and passionate allowed her to move difficult policy conversations forward.

“This amazing opportunity not only gave me a front row seat to see how national policies are developed and implemented, I was able to employ my skills and expertise as a trauma psychologist to impact change and make a contribution,” Powell explains. “Serving the Nation and our soldiers in this way is absolutely one of my proudest accomplishments.”

While her stint at the capitol has ended, Powell still works closely with the national government on topics related to her areas of expertise. As chair of the American Psychological Association’s Working Group on Health Disparities in Boys and Men, Powell recently testified at the Congressional Briefing on Men’s Mental Health in Washington, D.C.

The Importance of Creative Thinking

Since her time as a McNair Scholar, Powell has embraced creativity and believed in the importance of “right brain” thinking for academic and personal fulfilment.

“The program’s namesake, Ronald E. McNair, was a NASA astronaut and had a PhD in physics, but he was also a 5th degree black belt in karate and a performing jazz saxophonist,” says Powell. “Doing innovative research shouldn’t mean never leaving the lab or pursuing other interests.”

A self-described artist at heart, Powell writes poetry, sings opera and has even released a CD of original R&B/jazz music. In fact, Powell feels her creativity constantly informs and improves her ability to seek out non-traditional partnerships and solutions in her academic and professional endeavors.

“As academicians, we sometimes struggle to look beyond the usual suspects. In the context of health equity, we need to be more creative and target the places where people are having the majority of their daily lived experiences,” says Powell. “We’ve known that to successfully reach children, health information and care needs to be available through schools. Why don’t we take the same approach with adults and reach them where they spend the bulk of their time – at work, using public transportation, in churches. That’s where we can really establish impactful potential partnerships.”

Wizdom Powell received her PhD and MS in Clinical Psychology and MPH from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. In addition to being a White House Fellow, she is an American Psychological Association (APA) Minority, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kaiser Permanente Burch, Institute of African American Research, and Ford Foundation Fellow. She was recently named President-Elect of the American Psychological Association’s Division 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men & Masculinities). She has also recently joined Dove Men+Care as a male health expert to help the company tackle stereotypes and the cultural impact of modern fatherhood in communities of color. Read more about the partnership at The Undefeated.

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