8 June 2022
Carmen Vargas Ares boarded a plane from her homeland of Mexico bound for Australia in 2014 with one thing on her mind: adventure.
Together with partner her Luis Herrera, she had a five-year plan to take a break from her public health/nutrition career and soak up the vibe of Melbourne life while exploring the country on bike and foot.
Three years in everything changed when Luis was sponsored by his employer.
Assured by their four-year VISA status, Carmen began a Master of Public Health and International Development through Latrobe University – on top of her full-time employment waitressing in a restaurant.
It was a natural pathway for Carmen, having felt a “spark” for public health when it was introduced in the third year of her Bachelor of Dietetics and Nutrition degree in Mexico City, drawn to its social justice values. She spent the next 2.5 years studying, marking, and teaching, as well as volunteering with Nutrition Australia and Oxfam, sharing a wealth of experience gained through previous employment and education.
This included working with the food industry for more than four years, where she gained an insight into how large companies like Nestle, Pepsi Co., and Unilever substantiate food marketing and nutritional claims, to leading a “5-A-Day” ‘healthy communities’ campaign for three years where she collaborated with farmers through to the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. In addition, she was able to impart knowledge gained from a Diploma of Marketing and Master of Communications she had studied to support her “5-A-Day” work.
“It was a very busy time, but very rewarding,” Carmen reflected.
In May of 2021 she directed her boundless enthusiasm to her PhD, researching how to co-create interventions in food retail environments to achieve the best results for all stakeholders.
Carmen sees the project as critical to achieving change in food retail settings.
“I think it’s important because there are many voices that are not normally considered in this work. This approach is saying, ‘We are in this together and we will all benefit if we all put the time and effort in’. I do believe that supermarkets can move further social responsibility. It is a big challenge – yes – but I do believe we can get a good result without waiting for a policy that may never come.
“I have faith that we can do this from the bottom up. For me, this is about equity; it fits into the fight for people to be able to make the choice to be healthy.”
Carmen said she was buoyed by the support and vast experience of her RE-FRESH PhD supervisors, thankful for Prof. Steve Allender’s “broad thinking”, inspired by transferable learnings from A/Prof. Julie Brimblecombe’s work in Indigenous settings and grateful for Dr Jill Whelan’s “amazing ability to push me out of my comfort zone”.
Dr Whelan said it was a privilege to share in Carmen’s PhD learning experience, describing her resilience and enthusiasm as “infectious”.
She said Carmen was always excited to share what she had learnt and embraced every opportunity she was given and to seek out opportunities for herself.
“She is a truly self-directed learner who is able to keep an eye on her goal,” Dr Whelan said.
“I see a future for Carmen in public health where she will always be working with people to create and mobilise change for the public good. Her real world and real-life experiences prior to her PhD studies mean she brings a wealth of real-world practice to her studies that we can all learn from. I hope I work with Carmen for a very long time.”
You can read the first publication from Carmen’s PhD, a systematic review of stakeholders involved in co-creating healthy food environment initiatives, here.
NOTE: In 2022, Carmen is awaiting news of her application for permanent residency in Australia. When she’s not wearing her researcher “hat”, she enjoys Scrabble, rock climbing and road trips with Luis.
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