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BUILD Mentor Spotlight for May 2019: Dr. Virginia Gray

Published May 20, 2019

Dr. Virginia Gray

Dr. Virginia Gray

Assistant Professor
Graduate Coordinator

Department: Family and Consumer Sciences
College: Health and Human Services
Research Areas: Community nutrition, parenting
Mentor Directory Profile

My Career Path

As an academic, I believe strongly in providing valuable research experiences for motivated, hard-working students. My experience as an undergraduate scholar at the University of Florida working under Dr. Gail Kauwell opened my eyes to the research realm and prepared me for conducting quality research at the graduate level. The experience of having been mentored from early in my academic career plays a role in my desire to be an effective mentor to students at CSULB.

In my graduate work, I conducted two projects utilizing both qualitative and quantitative methods. First, under the mentorship of Dr. Wanda Dodson I developed a series of interviews with community leaders and recent Latino immigrants in a rural Mississippi town with an approximate 20-year history of recruiting immigrants to the area. I used a comparative approach (immigrant vs. community leaders) to glean insights into factors that were driving dietary changes among immigrants, and confirmed the findings with a final focus group. This rich experience ignited quite an interest in understanding “lived experience,” particularly with eye towards program or policy development to impact a particular target audience. I continued on in my doctoral training to integrate a mixed methods approach, creating and validating a survey for use with parents of second graders to investigate predictive factors related to child weight under the direction of Dr. Sylvia Byrd.

Quality mentoring helped me to develop confidence in my ability to develop and implement research projects with the potential to impact communities of people. As an undergraduate, I worked on a public health related project under the direction of a professor who was conducting clinical trials to investigate how differing genes impact blood folate levels, given a known amount of folate in the diet. Seeing integration of basic and applied sciences at this early phase in my student career impacted how I view research. Furthermore, writing an undergraduate thesis, participating in a research colloquium, and giving a poster presentation at a national meeting introduced me to developing skills for research dissemination, and prepared me well for research as a graduate student. Mentors in my graduate studies helped me to further develop my skills in planning, implementing, evaluating, and disseminating both qualitative and quantitative research.

After finishing graduate work, I spent eight years in applied settings, while also teaching in an adjunct capacity at Queens College in New York City and at California State University Long Beach. During these years, I conducted research for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene while an employee of a nonprofit (FoodChange) that was carrying out a farm to school program in New York City Schools. I also consulted for the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI). When presented with an opportunity to move into a tenure-track position at CSULB, I realized I could combine my love for working with students and community-based research in an institution with high values for students and community engagement.

Why My Research Is Exciting

I am really excited to have built a team of undergraduate and graduate students to move a project I started with BUILD Scholar, Reah Chiong, into a new phase. The first phase of the project has focused on evaluating impacts of a six-week parent/child nutrition and fitness class, with a focus on parenting. The next phase will add a class on infant feeding for new parents, implemented in a pediatric clinic. One student is collecting qualitative findings with new parents to guide development of the class. Then two additional students will develop classes (face-to-face and online), and compare the impacts of the two modalities on feeding practices and attitudes towards key food parenting concepts, such as setting up healthy food environments, modeling, and communication around feeding. Giving students a chance to see these projects build on each other, and to provide feedback and encouragement to each other along the way, is exciting to me.

In all of my student mentoring, I strive to create an environment in which students appreciate the many reasons people eat, and the social and cultural embeddedness of eating habits. I work to build imagination regarding solutions at the individual, community, and larger, societal level.

What You Should Know About My Research

My research strives to find ways to improve nutrition habits of people in communities in ways that connect with ALL of the reasons people eat. Sometimes people are afraid to eat with a nutrition professor! I remind them that I am not a food judge. While I believe strongly in the value of whole foods, lots of fruits and veggies, and less of the sugar that is so pervasive in U.S. diets, I hope to send a message with my research that healthy eating is meant to be enjoyable, realistic, and shared with people we enjoy being around.

How BUILD Trainees Have Contributed to My Research

To date, I have worked as a mentor for three BUILD scholars. Each has provided leadership on a community-based research project. First, Aaron Rafferty led focus groups with parents of children involved in youth sports, and worked with another student and myself to analyze the data and then present the findings at state and national conferences. He then took lead authorship on a manuscript to share the findings, published in a prominent nutrition journal. Stephanie Lin spent two years developing and implementing a nutrition and fitness program at a local middle school, with a focus on promoting eating competency and body satisfaction. Stephanie also shared these findings at state and national meetings, and has a paper in review. Lastly, Reah Chiong helped develop and implement SUPERKids, a nutrition and fitness program for elementary school children and their parents. This program is delivered in collaboration with a pediatric practice and a local YMCA. Reah’s love for nutrition education, creativity, and connection with people has made her an incredible asset in developing a program that translates the current “food parenting” literature into a curriculum, which we are evaluating for impacts on family nutrition and fitness practices. Reah and I co-delivered an oral presentation at the 2018 BUILD Symposium, and she has shared posters about SUPERKids at state and national meetings, and we are currently working on a manuscript.

How BUILD Has Contributed to My Research and Career

BUILD has helped me form connections with so many stellar researchers across campus! I am proud of our collective impact on students, science, and communities.