In Pursuit of Great Potential

By Leah Davis Christoper

Paul Perrin in Nigeria for Catholic Relief Services
Paul Perrin in Nigeria for Catholic Relief Services

Paul Perrin dreamed of serving the less fortunate. For him, the thought of facing impending war, hurricane wreckage, and infectious diseases wasn’t terrifying. It was exciting. Now he has responded to all of these disasters and more.

Just over a decade ago, Perrin was in the shoes of current Life Sciences majors. After receiving two BYU degrees—a bachelor of linguistics in 2003 and a master of public health in 2005—Perrin earned his doctorate in health systems and humanitarian assistance from Johns Hopkins in 2013. He interned with several relief organizations before completing his education, gaining experience that prepared him for his current position as a director at Catholic Relief Services. Perrin’s pre-career choices serve as a model for Life Sciences majors reaching for who they can become.

Moving towards a Career Path

Identifying his natural interests was important for Perrin as an undergraduate. “Always, since I was a kid, I was interested in science,” Perrin recalls. He initially began pursuing medicine, but that idea fizzled when he realized he “didn’t want to be in a hospital all day.”

So Perrin found a direction he did want to pursue: a master’s degree in public health. For his master’s thesis, Perrin incorporated the language skills and international experience he gained as a missionary in Armenia. He returned to the country in 2004 to research smoking among Armenian physicians, who often smoked while with patients. Mentored by health science professor Gordon Lindsay, he then helped create a volunteer abroad project there through BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center. In 2005, Perrin and BYU volunteers collaborated with hospitals and Armenia’s Ministry of Healthcare to raise awareness by presenting at medical schools and speaking on Armenian news for World No Tobacco Day.

Reflecting on the project, Perrin says, “That gave me my first taste of trying to solve a practical problem outside of the realm of the classroom.”

Applying Educational Skills in the Field

Haiti after the Earthquake
Haiti after the Earthquake

After graduating with his master’s degree, Perrin worked as an emergency-response intern with LDS Humanitarian Services. “My first full day on the job was to track a storm that was making its way across the Atlantic Ocean—and that storm became Hurricane Katrina,” he recounts. “So from my first day, it was very intense.”

Knowledge from BYU experiences kicked in as Perrin worked in this fastpaced situation. Writing skills were important in completing a daily world-disaster report. Critical-thinking skills helped him discern between useful and irrelevant data.

Soon, his work as an intern paid off. After a year at LDS Humanitarian Services, in 2006 Perrin was recommended to work at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a humanitarian organization that helps over a hundred countries a year to recover from natural disasters, wars, poverty, and diseases. He began in the HIV unit as an intern—a position that coincided with his first year in a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins.

Building on Internship Experiences

At Johns Hopkins, as during his BYU experiences, Perrin didn’t limit his education to the classroom. As a research assistant, he coordinated a study of public satisfaction with relief efforts a year after Haiti’s earthquake, working for three weeks in Haiti. For his doctoral dissertation, he was planning to visit the Republic of Georgia to observe people who were displaced when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But, in 2008, “Russia invaded Georgia as I was planning to go there,” Perrin explains. “All of a sudden after the conflict broke out, the funding fell apart.”

Perrin was finally cleared in 2011 to spend six months in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Since the conflict had forced more people out of their homes, Perrin and his team adapted their research angle to compare mental health in both the earlier and the recently displaced groups. Through the study, Perrin gained valuable experience that would later contribute to his career.

Becoming a Professional

While still progressing on his Ph.D., Perrin continued to gain work experience. He proved his abilities at CRS as an intern and then as a consultant, and then he worked for three years for the United States Agency for International Development. In 2012, Perrin was hired back at CRS as a senior advisor. A year and a half later, dissertation and graduation cap in hand, Perrin was promoted to be a director at CRS, in charge of a new accountability program.

Accountability matters because, Perrin says, “we are funded by the government. We are competing for grants.” The organization is not like a business whose customers receive the products they pay for. Instead, with humanitarian projects, “the people paying the services and the people receiving the services are different,” he explains. To ensure that donors’ contributions are used effectively, Perrin meets with professionals across the organization to promote the changes they hope to see.

Taking Note from Perrin’s Experiences

Georgian refugees after the war
Georgian refugees after the war

Not all Life Sciences students will choose Perrin’s career path, but they can learn from his experiences. Just as Perrin put effort into a meaningful project—his volunteer abroad— students can apply their knowledge in real-life contexts. Just as Perrin has applied writing and critical-thinking skills from BYU in his internships, master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, and now his career, students can focus on developing skills relevant to their ideal careers. In the section below, Perrin offers more counsel to guide who are interested in taking a more professional path.

Questions and Answers

What advice would you give to students choosing a major?

Find your interests: “I found things that I was passionate about . . . I really dabbled in a lot of different things. Even in my research, I tried a lot of different things to see what really tasted good to me.”

Volunteer: “I offered my services for free in projects that I was interested in. Almost every time that turned into a paid internship. I wasn’t afraid to take on good projects that I was really interested in.”

What educational and career advice would you give to current Life Sciences majors?

Choose skill-based courses: “Oftentimes it’s tempting to pick courses that the content is interesting to you—a malaria course, or infectious disease. But [consider] the ones that teach you skills rather than content—writing, data analysis, ways to interpret data and information—those types of skills I tap into a lot more. Epidemiology and biostatistics are the ones I’ve had to tap into the most in my career.”

Work in the field: “I profited from a lot of the work-study things I did. I was a teaching assistant in a public health class.”

What are some career options for those with a Master of Public Health?

Government work: “A lot of the work in public health, at least traditionally, is in the state, local, and federal government.”

Private humanitarian work: “Companies are starting to get into this space. These foundations are private organizations, usually founded by a successful company or founder of the company that wants to invest in something that has important social meaning.”

University teaching: “To work in academia, you need a doctoral degree. It’s a very competitive field.”