Professor works to build healthy communities

September 19, 2011

It may be a cliché, but the expression “knowledge is power” has special meaning for Perla Vargas. The assistant professor of psychology in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences devotes her energy and expertise to empowering individuals, families and communities to acquire the knowledge they need to lead healthy lives.

Vargas recently received the prestigious “Editor’s Choice” designation from the journal Pediatric Allergy and Immunology. The recognition spotlights the article “Developing a Food Allergy Curriculum for Parents,” for which she was lead author. Michael Duhaime and Perla Vargas Download Full Image

Research for the article included conducting focus groups with parents of food-allergic children to guide the development of a food allergy curriculum for newly diagnosed families.

“The article highlights the struggle food-allergic families face in their efforts to become educated about their children’s needs,” Vargas said. “Because parents felt overwhelmed with the amount and complexity of the information they had to master, they recommended developing a ‘one-page road map’ to orient newly diagnosed families to the task ahead.”

Vargas and her coauthors used the information they gathered to outline the basis for a comprehensive food allergy management curriculum for newly diagnosed families.

This publication is just one of Vargas’ initiatives related to food allergies. She collaborates with the Phoenix Allergy Network, an educational food allergy support group for families. Vargas also serves as co-investigator for an educational supplement to the federally funded Consortium of Food Allergy Research (CoFAR), based at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Her work with collaborators on CoFAR’s Food Allergy Education Program has created Web-based resources that cover topics including basics for the newly diagnosed, managing food allergies inside and outside of the home, and fact sheets focusing on allergies to specific foods including eggs, peanuts and wheat.

At ASU’s West campus, Vargas is committed to providing her students with opportunities to become involved in research projects; in fact, former student Maureen Keaveny is among the coauthors of “Developing a Food Allergy Curriculum for Parents.” Keaveny now is pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling psychology through ASU’s School of Letters and Sciences.

When Vargas offered her the opportunity to work on research projects, Keaveny was particularly interested in food allergies because she and other members of her family have had to address this issue. She contributed to the project that resulted in the food allergy curriculum article.

“In addition to the data analysis work I performed, Dr. Vargas worked with me to shape the findings to present at a conference,” Keaveny said. “She then invited me to work on the manuscript to submit for the article. Dr. Vargas was very open to my input and helped me shape my writing skills.”

Another of Vargas’ former students is Michael Duhaime, who recently completed his bachelor’s degree in psychology from New College and now is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. During his undergraduate studies, Duhaime participated in three projects with Vargas. One involved food allergies and the abilities of schools to respond to the health needs of children; another investigated the health profiles, lifestyles and risk-taking behaviors of college students; and a third involved collaborating with The Denton House, a local nonprofit community-based organization, to provide guidance on how the group can maximize its use of limited funding resources.

“Dr. Vargas utilizes the latest software and statistical analysis strategies to obtain the most reliable results for reporting,” said Duhaime, a married father of four who represents the first generation in his family to earn a university degree. “She always takes the time to explain, educate, and invite questions regarding coursework, research, and collaboration issues.”

Vargas earned her bachelor’s degree in Mexico; it was during her studies there that she became inspired to empower people to manage their own health. For those with limited access to health care, prevention is critical, she said.

But Vargas said it’s also critical to understand that while socioeconomic status is a strong predictor of health, the reasons for this situation are not what we might guess.

“The evidence shows that it is not lack of access to health care or poor personal choices that determine the poor health of the population but other social factors,” she explained. “The World Health Organization has proposed a set of policy changes to address this issue of health disparities, and only a few are based on medical care. Most of the policies are directed to changing issues related to poverty and education. Better health is associated with having more income, more years of education, and a more prestigious job. Health disparities researchers suggest that chronic stress and lack of personal control might account for some of the variations in health status across social groups.”

Vargas came to ASU in 2007 after working in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she was part of a team studying allergic diseases in children. Previously she earned her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Arizona and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Pulmonology and Critical Care Medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

In her work at ASU, Vargas reaches out not only to a variety of community groups but also organizations within the university, such as the Family Communication Consortium and the Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center. SIRC, an Arizona Board of Regents center supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, conducts trans-disciplinary minority health and health disparities research. At SIRC, Vargas serves as co-director of the Research Education and Training Core on Health Disparities.

“This is one of the advantages of working in a large university with a wide range of resources,” Vargas said. “Elizabeth Langland (the dean of New College) fully embraces the ‘one university’ concept and encourages faculty members to work collaboratively with our colleagues across ASU.”

Vargas’ research interests extend well beyond those related to food allergies. She also is interested in investigating behavioral processes involved in the management of children’s oral health, asthma and obesity, and in developing effective methods to improve management of these conditions and food allergies among high-risk, underserved children in community settings.

“I want to learn about the critical factors necessary to change health protective behaviors and to develop behavioral interventions to improve people’s health status and quality of life,” she said.

In other words, Vargas is employing that “knowledge is power” expression to make positive health changes at the grassroots level, in metropolitan Phoenix and beyond.

Freshman engineering students get guidance from industry pros

September 19, 2011

At E2 Camp, the orientation camp for freshmen in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, students are told to immediately begin thinking of themselves as full-fledged members of the engineering community.

“Traditionally, students have had to get through two or three years of classes before engineering schools started letting them feel like they might be good enough to be let into  the club,” said Paul Johnson, dean of the Fulton Schools, to students at an E2 Camp session last summer. Engineering Career Exploration Nfght Download Full Image

In breaking with that tradition, Johnson said: “We want you to think of yourselves as engineers from day one at ASU.”

As part of establishing that new tradition, ASU’s engineering schools recently presented its second annual Engineering Career Exploration Night for freshmen.

Such an event is typically geared for juniors and seniors, “but we want to create a sense of community among our first-year students, and help them develop an identity for themselves as future engineers,” said Robin Hammond, director of the Fulton Schools’ Engineering Career Center.

Generational bridge

Career Exploration Night is a pivotal part of the “reinvention of the first-year experience” under the direction of professor James Collofello, one of the Fulton Schools' associate deans and director of Academic and Student Affairs.

More than 1,100 freshmen attended the Sept. 8 event, where they had the opportunity to talk to almost 200 professional engineers and other representatives from more than 80 companies, government agencies and industry associations.

Intel, Microsoft, Boeing, IBM, Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Black & Decker and were among major corporations who sent representatives to meet with ASU freshman engineering students.

American Express, Banner Health, Cleveland Electrical Laboratories, Arizona Public Service Co., Salt River Project, Southwest Gas, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Central Intelligence Agency also were represented.

“These are all very busy people. So we’ve been thrilled about how many of them want to be a part of this event," said Joyce Donahue, a career advising coordinator for the Fulton Schools. "They really are interested in meeting and helping the next generation of engineers.”

Engineering fundamentals

“The emphasis is on giving students a look at all the cool things engineers get to do,” Hammond said. “They hear about engineers who are inventors, engineers who are entrepreneurs, engineers who are CEOs.”

And they heard all that and more directly from working engineers.

“Students need to understand that success will take more than technical skills, because many specific kinds of technical skills now become obsolete every several years,” said Max Nerheim, who gave the event’s opening address.

Nerheim is vice president of research and a technical fellow for Taser International, the self-defense and personal safety products and technology company. He earned a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in electrical engineering from ASU.

He told students that being capable of teaming with professionals in many other fields – both within and outside engineering – is essential in today’s fast-changing global economy.

“I tell them they have to be more than a good student getting good grades in classes,” Nerheim said. “A true engineer is a collaborator and a master at teamwork.”

Beyond technical expertise

Rene Bermudez, a project engineer for Phoenix-based Meadow Valley Contractors, had a similar message for young students.

“My advice is to get involved. Get involved in student engineering organizations, get internships that let you explore different aspects of the field of engineering you’re majoring in,” said Bermudez, who earned his degree in civil engineering from ASU in 2008.

He found his job through contacts he made while working with the ASU student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“The technical education is only a foundation,” Bermudez said. “You have to learn to network, learn leadership skills. That is how you get ahead.”

Decisions about directions

Beyond career advice, engineers at the event talked to students about charting their path through their coming years at the university.

“I started in electrical engineering and then went into aerospace” before changing course again and zeroing in on earning a degree in civil engineering at ASU in 1993, recalled Jayme Chapin, who’s now a senior civil engineer for the city of Glendale.

“So I know how hard it can be at a young age to figure out what your thing is,” she said. “I think it’s really valuable for students to hear from experienced engineers about the work they do. That could be so important in helping them make good decisions about the direction they will go in.”

Dave Chapin, also a 1993 ASU civil engineering graduate, now working for Tpac, a division of Kiewit, a major building contractor, said many students need help “simply understanding what they are getting into” by majoring in engineering.

“Some know exactly what they want to do and some have only a general idea,” he said. “But they all need to know more about what they should focus on” in their studies and extracurricular pursuits to emerge as viable job candidates.

Jump-start for career plans

“I love this kind of event for freshman,” said Patrick O’Leske, a civil engineering major. “I found it useful for information about my future career. Most of the people I spoke to were friendly and provided as much information as they could, though it was so busy you had to wait five to ten minutes for them to be available.”

Engineering management major Justin Hennis said the event was valuable for “giving you a good heads-up about what is coming in the future” for engineering students, “and what to expect when it’s time to look for a job.”

Hennis said the event could have been managed more effectively by having industry representatives talk to groups of several students at arranged times, “rather than everyone scrambling all around. But I think this is great program and it should continue.”

Career Center director Hammond said her office already is at work on ways to enhance the experience at next year’s freshmen Career Exploration Night.

“Students are hearing first-hand from people who are doing the kinds of work they will be doing after they graduate,” she said. “This can be an extremely valuable first step in career planning.”

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Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering