Sharing the language of health

Photo by Kent Dayton

3 min read

Elizabeth Perry’s childhood love of reading and writing has stuck around. That passion led her first to a journalism career, and later to roles in federal agencies in which she used her communication chops to help people thrive — both in health and in other ways.

Perry earned a master of science degree in social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2017. She returned three years later, and now she’s on track to earn a doctor of public health (DrPH) degree in May.

Perry studied writing and philosophy at Atlanta’s Spelman College, worked at Time Inc. for about five years, then moved to Washington, D.C., and studied health communication at Johns Hopkins, earning a master’s degree in 2012.

For her final project, Perry evaluated messaging from local government regarding HIV prevention. Interviewing Black women who were HIV positive, she learned that almost half of them had contracted the disease during what they believed — wrongly — were monogamous relationships. At the time, some messaging from the NIH and the CDC was focused on monogamy as a way to prevent HIV. “I thought, ‘This was the wrong message,’” Perry recalled.

As it happened, Perry began a job at the NIH while she was in school. She took her concerns about HIV messaging to her superiors at the NIH. Eventually, the agency changed its messaging.

“If the wrong message is out there, or if the information people need to make the right decision is not available or not getting through, there’s a lot at stake,” Perry said.

Perry later worked at a federal agency that helps federal employees and members of the military save money for retirement. Wanting to learn more about policies and programs that support well-being and make it easier for people to thrive, she began her master’s program at Harvard Chan School while still working part-time. She balanced being a grad student, working in D.C., and mothering a young son. When she returned to Harvard Chan School in 2020 for the Dr.PH. Program, she launched a support group called Parents@HarvardChan, which now has about 30 members.

For her summer immersion project in 2021, Perry worked as a consultant at the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior, and Development science unit to explore COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in countries including Iraq, Honduras, and Romania.

In her doctoral work, Perry is exploring how women executives can best use their first 100 days on the job to increase their long-term success and effectiveness, and how that might be different from what men executives might do.

Studying at the School over the course of several years has been well worth the occasional bumps, Perry said.

“The pull of being surrounded by a bunch of kind, brilliant people who were all working to make the world better was just so powerful to me,” she said. “The Chan School is just full of one-of-a-kind people who put themselves out there and make you think you can do anything.”

Karen Feldscher