Carmen Vargas Ares has spent the past three years as a RE-FRESH-funded PhD student, supervised by RE-FRESH researchers Prof. Steve Allender, A/Prof. Julie Brimblecombe, and Dr Jill Whelan. 

She submitted her thesis on ‘The Theory and Practice of Co-creation to Develop Health-Enabling Initiatives: a Food Retail Perspective’ in June (2023) which focuses on how all stakeholders can work together effectively to meet each of their needs – an approach she describes as “critical to achieving change” in retail food retail settings.   

Carmen is now applying for grants to further her research, while undertaking a variety of projects with fellow RE-FRESH members. 

She has taken a moment to reflect on the journey she has travelled and what she has learnt about research – and herself – in this special ‘Q&A’ piece: 


You have celebrated pressing ‘submit’ on your PhD thesis; what’s next for you?

At this point, I am trying to put a proposal together that includes what I have learned in the past three years, but at the same time, something that leads me to the change I want to make in the next five to 10 years. All this while supporting some RE-FRESH projects and co-chairing a Deakin University unit called Comparative Health Systems. 


What has been the toughest thing about doing your PhD?

Probably dealing with my expectations, quality level and deadlines.  


What have you enjoyed most about your PhD?

I have enjoyed every step of my PhD. I have loved working with a big group of great researchers and meeting so many interesting people; I treasure the friendships I have made and the relationships I have built with my supervisors.  


What have you learnt most about the process and yourself while undertaking your PhD?

I think it’s reiterated how resilient and highly driven I am. I think that these characteristics helped me focus on the big picture and finish within the three years that my program was planned. I have learned that nothing is perfect, and circulating a first draft for feedback is better than keeping it one more week. I learned to let things go and move on to something I could control, like doing my best.  


What did you learn most from your supervisors?

I learned that ‘progress is progress’ – regardless of the outcome. I learned to keep the fire in my belly because that will is what will help me achieve great things and keep my mind on what I believe is important, regardless of the challenge. I learned to keep my options open and work towards the person/researcher I want to be. 


What did you learn from studying at this level? Perhaps a pearl of wisdom you could share with others starting on their PhD journey…

I learnt, and recommend, the value of having good relationships with people who know their stuff, or can point you to the right person to ask.  


Where do you see yourself  – hopes/dreams – in 20 years from now?

I see myself being part of something that helps improve food systems, supporting a civil society that advocates for meaningful changes to improve people’s health.  


Finally, can you please share a list of the publications that have come out of your PhD? 



Carmen has also produced several videos to support her research: 

A few words from one of Carmen's PhD supervisors:

‘Carmen has advanced our understanding of co-creation and the role of the multiple different parties that need to be engaged if we are to successfully trasnofrm food retail environments to support a healthy population. Carmen is a very strong, independent researcher who conducts very high quality work with consistent and strong standards. Carmen has used her PhD studies to expand her knowledge and provide the stepping stones for the next phase of her research career. Carmen has a strong future in whatever research endeavour she chooses though food retail will benefit from her passion and her drive. Co-creation is a critical and emerging area of research and Carmen is a current leader in this type of research. ’

Professor Steve Allender


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