SEAS student exploring the effects of age and diet on gut health

By Elizabeth Egan 

Published May 22, 2024

When Ariel Lighty was in high school, she did not imagine an engineer to be much more than a mechanic. Today, the University at Buffalo student has earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) fellowship as she pursues her PhD in chemical and biological engineering. 

Ariel Lighty.
“I enjoy trying new creative hobbies and always learn a lot. This drive to learn and create is inherently helpful in research.”
Ariel Lighty , PhD Student
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

Lighty took a gap year after high school to save money for college. During that year, she knew she was interested in pursuing research. Her fascination with the complexity of human physiology along with having family members with genetic disorders caused her to gravitate towards an interest in biology-based research. She also began to learn more about the wide array of opportunities in engineering. Lighty recalled finding inspiration from a TEDx Talk by the founder of the GoldieBlox toy company that challenged how people picture an engineer.

Lighty started at the University of Rochester as a biomedical engineering major but ended up switching to chemical engineering. Her undergraduate research, on developing target materials for laser-based physics experiments, led to her receiving a position as a research assistant at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. While she was primarily engaging in wet-lab materials research, Lighty found that she loved being able to use computational research methods.

When Lighty decided to pursue graduate school, she knew that she wanted to find an engineering program with ample opportunities for computational research. It was also very important to her that she find a program with a diverse and inclusive environment.

In her search, she came across Ashlee Ford Versypt, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and the Systems Biomedicine and Pharmaceutics Lab that Ford Versypt leads. Lighty enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences where she joined the lab and became an advisee of Ford Versypt. She was excited to work under a female principal investigator and to have the opportunity to revisit her interest in biology.

“I was interested in Dr. Ford Versypt’s research because she uses computational tools and chemical engineering concepts to address biological problems. Even though my research before graduate school was material science, I still always had more of an interest in biology,” said Lighty. “I also loved that she was very open and genuine in broadcasting her commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

Lighty’s PhD research focuses on understanding the effects of aging and diet on gut health using mathematical models. Her work specifically pertains to estrogen loss in postmenopausal women, which can lead to inflammation resulting in complications such as osteoporosis, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, and how probiotics and prebiotics could help.

“I have had my own experience with gastrointestinal struggles, and I know others who do as well. I ended up on the lucky side where I had conditions that had treatments with high success rates and few side effects. I know others aren't so lucky, so being able to explore the gastrointestinal aspects of health is really meaningful for me,” said Lighty. “I also know that women's health is fairly understudied, so I'm glad I can contribute to rectifying this.”

Lighty said that existing clinical trials have shown mixed results when treating postmenopausal osteoporosis with prebiotics and probiotics. She hopes that by the end of her fellowship she will be able to improve the understanding of why results differ and help researchers better understand the biological mechanisms behind the phenomena to make treatment more effective.

Lighty will develop computational models with the goal of providing mechanistic insights that benefit experimentalists, including collaborators at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

When Lighty is not in the classroom or lab, she is a self-proclaimed hobby hopper. She enjoys engaging in projects that allow her to tap into her creative prowess such as drawing, video editing, creating vector graphics and, most recently, interior design and finding DIY projects to do around her apartment.

“I enjoy trying new creative hobbies and always learn a lot,” said Lighty. “This drive to learn and create is inherently helpful in research.”

The NSF GRFP fellowship launched in 1952, making it the oldest continuous investment in the nation’s STEM workforce. It is a highly competitive program that is given to high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers to support their training and research.

Leah Maykish, a PhD student in the Department of Engineering Education, received an honorable mention.