Alumni Interview: Joseph La Torre, Psychology Ph.D. Student

By Nicole Collins, MTS ’24

Editor’s Note: In this post, alum and psychology Ph.D. student Joseph La Torre shares about his journey before, during, and after HDS.

Joseph La Torre (MTS ’20) is completing his Psychology PhD at the University of Ottawa, where he is working under Dr. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Disparities. Joseph is a scholar-practitioner-activist with a deep commitment to advancing the field of psychology in a just and equitable way, and his research interests span a range of critical topics including racial trauma, culturally competent assessment and treatment, anxiety, psychotic conditions, psychedelic phenomenology, shamanism, and the development of novel psychedelic-assisted treatment. Joseph received his MTS in Buddhist Studies from Harvard Divinity School in 2020 where he was a Dean’s Fellow, and completed a Fulbright in Nepal in 2016. His dissertation research explores possible benefits and risks of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for individuals with stigmatized conditions such as psychotic disorders and bipolar disorder.

Nicole Collins: Did you apply to more than one divinity school when considering master’s programs, and, if so, what ultimately led you to choose HDS? 

Joseph La Torre: I applied to Chicago and I think Yale as well. I also applied to Stanford’s MA in East Asian Studies. I got into all of them, but Harvard was very generous with the Dean’s Fellowship and Dean’s Scholarship! 

NC: I’m curious to hear a little more about what your career after HDS has looked like, and about the work you’re doing right now, and what your hopes are for the future. 

JLT: After HDS, I went into a psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Ottawa. I went there specifically because I was really interested in studying something very specific: psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and psychedelic medicine—invariably called plant medicine or indigenous modalities of healing. Things related to psychosomatic and psychospiritual healing. 

These topics are a bit “out there” in terms of what you’re allowed to do in psychology departments, so I wasn’t really sure I could find something. But I found one person in all of the United States and Canada who studied these things in a psychology department—it’s generally more common to do these kinds of things at a medical school—and I went to go study with her. Her name is Dr. Monnica T. Williams, and she brought me into her lab, and we started doing research on a number of psychedelic topics. 

I did a lot of work at the beginning of my program on cultural competency in the field of mental health: the way to properly assess and treat people from marginalized groups, and so on. We researched quite a bit on how spirituality and people’s religious traditions should be taken into consideration in the context of psychotherapy as well. 

My HDS background worked really well in this context because these topics I was—and still am—exploring really straddles religious studies, spirituality, psychology, and neuroscience, and so I was always a kind of interdisciplinary scholar. I’m almost done with my Ph.D., so a lot of this is in the past tense.  

NC: Did you have an imagined post-HDS path before and during your time at HDS? Was there continuity? 

JLT: Yeah, I basically knew that I wanted to do a Ph.D. from the start. I wasn’t sure what to do it in, but my specific path wasn’t premeditated; it happened during my time at HDS. 

NC: To what extent did what you studied at HDS mesh with what you’re doing now?

JLT: I studied Buddhism, spirituality, and consciousness at HDS, and that’s kind of what I ended up doing after HDS. But while I studied Buddhism specifically at HDS, I brought that into a different context in this Ph.D. program, which focused a lot on indigenous medicine and shamanism in some ways, in addition to psychotherapy. This is something I did at HDS a little bit with Cheryl Giles, Chris Berlin, and some other people. 

NC: What professors or classes stick most in your mind from your time at HDS? 

JLT: Charles Hallisey. He impacted me a lot and we explored phenomenology to some extent in his lectures, and that was really important to me. Jay Garfield also exposed me to some really amazing work—esoteric texts. Those were really interesting and helped me to understand important aspects of mystical states as well. 

NC: What are some of the big qualitative lessons you learned at HDS that you bring to your life and work today? 

JLT: I am really grateful for my experience at HDS because it fostered a kind of cultural humility, I’d say, as well as a sensitivity to different religious traditions and different cultural groups, as well as also helping me to understand the kind of importance of spirituality in relation to mental health, mental wellbeing, and community. In a more specific way, it taught me how spirituality can be related to different forms of consciousness. I see myself ultimately as the kind of person who ultimately studies non-ordinary states of consciousness, and a lot of spiritual paths have studied this before. I do use the Buddhist and Vedic texts as a touchstone because they’ve been “here,” studying this, before, and a lot of people in these traditions have written extensively about exactly what western psychology is now just starting to get its hands on. I see myself as definitely taking a lot from HDS and applying it now to my work, for sure.  

NC: I think those are all my questions. Thanks for speaking with me! 

JLT: Thank you! 

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