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Professor works to build healthy communities

Michael Duhaime and Perla Vargas
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.

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.