Ashley Vargas, Exceptional CALS Graduate

Monday, October 31, 2016
Ashley J. Vargas, PhD, MPH, RDN, FAND

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences strives to provide undergraduate, graduate and professional students with a superior education, fostering growth and learning with the ultimate goal of producing employable graduates. We are proud of the contributions our alumni have made and continue to make to a wide array of fields. Nutritional Sciences graduate Ashley J. Vargas, PhD, MPH, RDN, FAND, is an exceptional example of this.

Vargas completed the Doctoral program in Nutritional Sciences in spring 2016 under her main advisors, Patricia Thompson assistant professor of Pathology and Cynthia Thomson, professor, Nutritional Sciences Graduate Program.. She has accepted a position at the National Institutes of Health located in Bethesda, Maryland as health science policy analyst within the Office of Disease Prevention (Office of the Director, NIH). Her primary objectives are to analyze, inform and improve disease prevention research funded by NIH, which is the largest biomedical research funding agency in the world and has an enormous impact on the future of disease prevention research and practice. Recently, she took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about why she chose CALS, what she gained from it and to lend advice to current students and soon-to-be graduates.

Q: Of all the options of colleges and universities, why did you choose the Nutritional Sciences Program at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and at the University of Arizona?
I was very interested in the gene-nutrition work the department was doing and there were multiple advisors who worked in this area to choose from. At CALS, I knew I would have access to DNA sequencing technology and samples in order to address important questions in the field of nutrition and genetics. I was also really impressed with the programmatic staff and their willingness to help a first generation college graduate navigate the academic system.

Q: During your time in the Nutritional Sciences Program, what was your primary research project?
At CALS my dissertation focused on the role of dietary polyamines (a nutrient-like molecule in foods that is associated with cancer growth) and colorectal cancer. In the pursuit of my dissertation I asked for and was exposed to a variety of molecular techniques including cell line work, protein/mRNA/DNA measurement and human tissue sample work.

Q: How did the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences prepare you for entering the workforce?
CALS provided me with a world-class education and opportunities to publish peer-reviewed science. CALS faculty were also incredibly supportive of helping me pursue leadership experiences within and beyond academia. For example, I was able to help develop a nutrition graduate student club, work as an advisor to non-profit industry, and volunteer as an editor for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (a non-profit, nutrition organization). These opportunities rounded out my CV and allowed me to successfully compete for my postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute.

Q: What is one of your habits that you believe has helped you achieve success in college and the workplace?
I ask a lot of questions. I have been told that this started when I was very little and used to drive my parents crazy. However, asking questions has served me well as a scientist and as a professional. People are very busy, and if you don't ask for what you want then chances are you won't be offered it. There is always the concern that you will be disappointed by the answer to your question, but I weigh this with the amount of disappointment I would feel if I later learn I could have obtained the promotion/information/item if I had just asked for it. As a scientist, you are taught to think critically and this necessitates developing a thick skin for criticism. This thick skin, and experiencing rejection, has helped tamper the disappointment when my questions are poorly received or my ask is denied.

Q: What advice would you give to a current student searching for a career?
Ask for informational interviews from many people who have jobs you think you are interested in. Used LinkedIn, company websites or ask to speak to program alumni. The fact of the matter is, most people would love to spare 15-30 minutes to speak about themselves and to help offer guidance to a student. We were all students once. These meetings will help you decide how to focus your career and may serve as contacts for jobs in the future. Do not be afraid to ask once or twice, the worse thing they can say is no. If you do not receive a response by the second ask, then consider moving on to  someone else.

Q: What advice would you give to a student about success at the University of Arizona/College of Agriculture and Life Sciences?
This is your time to be fearless. Ask to do lots of different things until you find out what combination of things interests you and keeps you up at night thinking about them. You will never have the opportunity to be so self-reflective again once you get out into the workforce. However, be strategic with your time. You need a list of marketable skills and products (completed scientific manuscripts, projects, presentations, etc.) to fill up your resume at the end of your academic experience. Make sure that you invest the most time in pursuits that will have a marketable skill/product outcome.

--Prepared by Nea Sample Hamilton

This article is first in a series of recent graduate and student interviews.

NIH Staff Profile
Ashley Vargas
National Institute of Health