When you take account of Dr. Torrance Stephens’ prodigious career as a professor, scientist, prolific author, popular sociopolitical blogger and world traveler, some might say his career highlight would be returning to teach at his prestigious alma mater, Morehouse College, or even at Emory University. Others might point to the fact that he was personally asked to appear on Capitol Hill and testify before Congress regarding disturbing findings about HIV/AIDS and recidivism in the African American prison population. Others might point out that he has lived in several parts of Africa while conducting important research.
Stephens says that, while he is immensely proud of the aforementioned career milestones, being recognized by the august National Institute of Health as one of the world’s leading scientists and researchers on the issues that impact African Americans inordinately — such as HIV/AIDS and recidivism — has given him unequalled gratification because it is work that uplifts his people. None of this, however, would have been remotely possible, had he not chosen to pursue advanced degrees.
After studying psychology, biology and chemistry at Morehouse College, Stephens received a master’s degree in Educational Psychology and Measurement from Atlanta University [now Clark Atlanta University] and a Ph.D. in counseling from Clark Atlanta University. Stephen’s work has appeared in publications such as NOMMO, Creative Loafing, Rolling Out, Talking Drum, the North Avenue Review and other periodicals across the globe.
At what point in your life did you decide to pursue your advanced degree?
As a kid, I knew I always wanted to be a scientist. I knew I wanted to do research. I was exposed to that early in my life with my mom going to Vanderbilt and [as a young man] being raised in the hospital where she worked, where I would go by the laboratories all the time and just go work with people. Bringing home babies in jars and hearts in jars and things like that was fun. I knew this is what I wanted to do from age eight on up.
You bypassed opportunities to go to the University of Tennessee and follow your mom to Vanderbilt, and you instead chose to go to the HBCU giant Morehouse. Why do you say Morehouse was one of the best experiences of your life?
Because it exposed me to like-minded people. I would never imagine going to a school with so many brothers, and we’d sit out in the hall talking about [things like] Seth theory, and just talking about it like it was second nature to us. It was something that was just beyond classroom and work.
How has having advanced degrees, especially a Ph.D. enhanced your life and opened the world to you?
I probably never would have been invited by [esteemed Princeton professor] Dr. Cornell West to go to Ethiopia to address the first African-Ethiopia AIDS conference. I probably would never have had the opportunity to live in Nigeria at such a young age, had I not received that post-doc from the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help and working with Afro-Care and doing epidemiological research. I probably would have never had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest scientists in the world at their universities had I not done that [gotten advanced degrees]. The exposure [you get] is just something that you can’t even imagine. It taught me a different way to appreciate research. A lot of times these people were doing research and they didn’t look like me, yet they were doing research on people who look like me. They had the standard. They could set and define what African American behavior was, without being African American. So it meant a lot [to have a Ph.D.] to be able to conduct that type of research.
Having a Ph.D also enabled you to earn a good living engaging in your passion, which is uplifting research.
I’ve received grants from U.S. Army Medical Research at Fort Detrick Maryland and the National Cancer Institute to receive National Institute of Health R1 funding of up to $3 million to do research in South Africa and here in the U.S. with prisons here in Georgia. I have 50 to 60 scientific papers in some of the most respected journals in the world. People around the world look at me as a leading authority in my field, which is infectious diseases, recidivism, and risk reduction among incarcerated populations and the African American community.
When the NIH asked about HIV in prisons or among the African American population, I’m one of the 10 to 12 people from around the world that they call so they can talk about these things and decide which type of research to do and where these areas of vulnerability are located, and which populations need the attention. Being there, it allows me to be in a position to offer some type of support of an urgency for research money to go to these areas.
We know that mentors helped you in your life. How do you mentor young people, particularly as it pertains to the importance of continual education?
I tell them the truth. The coterie of young people today, as comparable to when I went to school without all these technological advances … they really take it for granted. They forget the struggles that people had for them. They don’t look at reading as being a revolutionary activity. Everyone thinks that Asians are smarter. But that’s not the truth. They will sit for 15 hours until they figure it out – in a group. Whereas we would want to stop to check our phones. They don’t do that. They value learning and academia. I show [my students] the work ethic when I’m teaching in my classes. I also take them under my [wing] and publish them in journals. I introduce them to academia and research because a lot of times they just want to be counseling psychologists or clinical psychologists. They don’t want to go into the hard area of research which allows us to define our community. We need more scientists. Only 3 percent of physicians are African Americans. Two percent of all the lawyers are African Americans. We’re less than 1 percent of all the architects. But we make up 80 percent of the NBA, 67 percent of the NFL and 98 percent of all the rappers. And it’s harder to get into the NBA or NFL than it is to become a scientist. And think about it — we’re almost matching that slave mentality where we are good with our bodies, but not with our minds. And[to top it off] I know of 50- and 60-year-old lawyers and doctors who can still work and are still bringing in six-figure paychecks.
Check out Dr. Stephens’ provocative thoughts daily on his popular blog, http://rawdawgb.blogspot.com/