For many scientists, communicating their research involves turning data into stories. However, for Laura Vargas, PhD, MSW, MPA, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, her data already are stories.
Vargas’ laboratory is mostly in the field, where she interviews Latin American immigrants fleeing violence and poverty about traumatic experiences in their home countries and along their migratory routes to the United States. The data in these stories help Vargas to understand how individual characteristics – such as gender, age, sexuality, education and country of origin – affect trauma exposures and their impacts. Vargas brings her training as a scientist and practice as a social worker to her research. The ultimate goal is to use knowledge of mental health vulnerabilities among Latin American immigrants in the United States to improve the development and delivery of appropriate treatment, for the right person, at the right time.
South American migrants must pass through a treacherous 60-mile stretch of dense rainforest, steep mountains and vast swamps called the Darién Gap, a roadless, lawless pass separating Colombia in South America from Panama in Central America. It’s strewn with dead bodies, a harbinger of the many dangers that lurk, both from nature and from armed guerrillas. The dangers don’t stop for those who survive the Darién Gap or are just beginning for those who set out from Central America.
Vargas’ current research focuses on understanding individual characteristics that impact mental health challenges among Latin American immigrants. But in the future, she aims to use this knowledge to identify which points of intervention matter the most and for whom. She intends to help change systems upstream to prevent mental health problems downstream.
She explained that to effectively reduce health disparities, the focus must be on systemic change rather than the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” emphasis on individual initiative. “This is essential because you can row and row and row and row and never get upstream if you were way downstream,” she said.
Read more at News.CUAnschutz.edu.