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Alumni Profile: Al Powers, M.D., Ph.D., (’12)

Posted by on Thursday, September 28, 2023 in Alumni .

By Drew Kittleson (G2)

Dr. Al Powers, M.D., Ph.D. (’12) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and serves as Medical Director and Associate Director of the PRIME Psychosis Risk Clinic at Yale School of Medicine. As a clinician-scientist actively engaged in academic medicine, he treats individuals who have developed symptoms of psychosis and directs a research program aimed at understanding the underlying sensory processes that predispose some people to these symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions. I was introduced to Dr. Powers when he visited Vanderbilt for an invited talk about his research program in February 2023, and had the opportunity to follow up on our conversation further over Zoom, where we chatted about his career trajectory and advice for current trainees.


Pathway to the Vanderbilt MSTP

Dr. Powers grew up in the northeast and attended Yale College where he studied cognitive science. Despite being the first in his family to attend higher education, he thrived during his undergraduate years, and here he began to develop his love for the human brain and its complexities. Reflecting on his time as an undergraduate in New Haven, Dr. Powers notes that his involvement and leadership within one of this campus a capella groups provided him with useful skills for navigating difficult group dynamics, which served him well in his M.D./Ph.D. training and in his care of psychiatric patients. 


How Clinical Experiences Informed a Career Path

Dr. Powers came to the Vanderbilt MSTP confident that he wanted to continue doing neuroscience-related research and clinical work but was initially unsure in which field. His clerkship year was very illuminating in that he was able to work in a variety of specialties involving the brain, such as neurosurgery, otolaryngology, and neurology, before working in the Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital (VPH) and finding a passion for psychotic disorders. For example, during his rotation on the functional neurosurgical service, Dr. Powers found himself asking more questions about the basis of the patient’s personality and cognitive changes than the procedural steps of the surgery. Likewise, when working with the stroke service during his neurology rotation, Dr. Powers was fascinated by the ability to map function onto brain structure, but he noticed that his curiosities led him to think about the abstract concept of the ‘self’ more than the biochemical properties of the ischemia that predisposed the lesion in the first place. When he finally arrived at his psychiatry clerkship rotation towards the end of his clerkship year and worked with Dr. Nathaniel Clark (now Chief Medical Officer of VPH), Dr. Powers was confident that he had found the specialty for him. Furthermore, he found himself fascinated by the phenomenology of psychosis—namely, the hallucinations and delusional beliefs that some patients experienced that distorted their perceptions of reality. 


Integrating Research with Clinical Work

When he began his graduate studies, Dr. Powers joined the Neuroscience Graduate Program and worked with Dr. Mark Wallace, where he studied multisensory integration in humans using functional neuroimaging (fMRI) methods. After communicating early and often about goals for training in both methods and topics with Dr. Wallace (which he cites as key to success in graduate school), Dr. Powers was able to earn his Ph.D. in three years and return to medical school with a solid groundwork in methods that allowed him to study the biological bases of human behaviors. When applying to residency programs, Dr. Powers looked to institutions that had strong and demonstrated track records of training psychiatrist-scientists, which he encountered at Yale’s psychiatry residency and neuroscience research training program. He suggests current MSTP trainees look for programs where there is a proven record of success for previous physician-scientists, like Yale in the case of psychiatry, when choosing potential programs for residency.


Advice for Current Trainees

When he reflects on his M.D./Ph.D. and residency training prior to joining the Yale faculty in 2018, Dr. Powers emphasizes how important a support system was for him while he navigated the different levels of training. Dr. Powers met his now-wife in medical school, with whom he couples matched, and he highlights this as a large part of what made psychiatry residency—especially intern year—more bearable. Carving out pockets of time, however small, for the things that bring him joy (such as singing), was also crucial for Dr. Powers during his training. Over the years since joining Yale faculty, he has become better at balancing his clinical, research, and personal obligations. He cites his newly-awarded R01s and recent invitation to join the Yale Camerata choral ensemble as proof of his improvement with time management and balancing skills over the years! Dr. Powers also underscores how helpful it was to have a strong system of support present during both M.D./Ph.D. and residency training, where family lived close by in both cases and was able to help with childcare as he and his wife established their new careers and grew their own family. (In-laws make helpful babysitters, as I was told!)


Reminiscing on Nashville and Vanderbilt

Since returning to New Haven and Yale following his time in Nashville, Dr. Powers looks back fondly on the memories he made in the Vanderbilt MSTP. While in medical school, he met his wife and cultivated a close-knit group of friends, with whom he continues to reunite (in fact, this year, the group is headed to Connecticut with the Powers’ acting as hosts!). In addition to finding community in the form of new family and friends during his time, Dr. Powers also appreciated his time in Nashville for the availability of great barbecue and live music, and for the non-competitive institutional environment at Vanderbilt. He has also brought some of his favorite things from Tennessee back with him to Connecticut, including learning how to smoke ribs at home for his wife, young children, and parents!