Arral honored as one of AIChE’s 35 Under 35

Lauren Smith

Oct 13, 2023

Mariah Arral

Mariah L. Arral is being honored as one of 35 Under 35 from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). The award is given to AIChE members who have made significant contributions to the field of chemical engineering and to AIChE. Arral is the only graduate student and one of the youngest on this year's list.

"Mariah represents the best of the chemical engineering community through her pioneering research, devotion to education, advocacy for the disabled community, and generosity of spirit. It has been a privilege and joy to serve as her advisor here at Carnegie Mellon," says Kathryn Whitehead, a professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering.

Mariah represents the best of the chemical engineering community through her pioneering research, devotion to education, advocacy for the disabled community, and generosity of spirit.

Kathryn Whitehead, Professor, Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering

Arral, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering, focuses on designing next-generation lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) for mRNA delivery. These are the same materials used in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Arral started her Ph.D. in 2018 with Whitehead, before there were any FDA-approved mRNA-LNP therapies. She remarks, "It's been amazing to see the field of mRNA therapies go from a perceived niche technology to a therapeutic everyone engages with." Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been wider recognition of the potential of mRNA and lipid nanoparticle therapeutics.

In the Whitehead lab, Arral investigates drug delivery outcomes for under-studied groups, specifically the elderly. "As our elderly population increases, we need more robust and effective treatment strategies tailored for elderly patients," she says. Arral received the prestigious NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award, funded by the National Institute on Aging. The award funded her work on designing effective mRNA vaccines for the aging population.

Arral leads three other projects in the Whitehead lab, including a study of the immune response of lipid nanoparticles. Most mRNA treatments require multiple doses, yet not every LNP can be delivered repeatedly and be effective consistently over time. Arral wants to understand why this happens and if there is a way to recover LNP effectiveness.

She has also incorporated her appreciation for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility into projects. "I've investigated how diversity in age, sex, or model type impacts the results that we obtain when delivering mRNA therapies. These factors are going to be critical for the successful translation of these life-saving therapies from the lab to the clinic," she says.

I think she’s just getting started. Once you start seeing where her accomplishments and awards intersect, you see her potential.

Jeffrey Halpern, Associate Professor, University of New Hampshire

The AIChE award also recognizes Arral for her engineering education and accessibility research, through which she advocates for disabled individuals. Arral, who is autistic and dyslexic, applies her own experiences as well as scientific rigor. Her paper "10 Tips to Make Your Course More Accessible and Inclusive to Disabled Students" was published by the American Society of Engineering Education, and she is often invited to speak. "I've been very purposeful in my education research to make it not only outreach activities to help people, but also research outcomes that others can look at and recognize, like publishing papers and giving talks," she says.

Arral is also a co-principal investigator with a team at the University of New Hampshire, her undergraduate alma mater, that studies how to support a neurodiverse research community. The project aims to investigate different mentoring strategies that support neurodivergent STEM undergraduate researchers to thrive. "We are at an exciting stage of the research project where we observed very interesting findings. I am looking forward to sharing preliminary results at the AIChE annual meeting in November," she says.

Four adults standing in front of research posters and smiling

Source: Mariah Arral

Mariah Arral (third from left) as an undergraduate at UNH, with Jeffrey Halpern (second from left) and fellow researchers.

One of Arral's co-principal investigators on the engineering education project was also her undergraduate mentor. Jeffrey Halpern, an associate professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of New Hampshire, helped Arral navigate the graduate application process and the transition from public to private university. Arral brought this experience to her role as diversity, equity, and inclusion co-chair for the Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Association (ChEGSA) at CMU. Sharing similar views, she and her co-chair were inspired to start an applications assistance program that connects people from underrepresented groups with current graduate students to help them through the application process.

Arral also started a mentoring program for first-year ChemE Ph.D. students in 2020, while president of ChEGSA. The program entered its fourth year this fall.

Reflecting on her efforts to increase inclusion and accessibility in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Arral says she has seen a willingness to listen and change. "We're able to engage in conversations that are complex, nuanced, and in-depth that I think have grown me as an individual and that gave me real insights into how universities function," she says. "Change takes time."

As she wraps up her Ph.D., Arral is looking for postdoc positions. Her goal is to become a tenure-track professor. "I want to be an insightful researcher who assists people toward their next steps, while also being a teacher and mentor who conveys to people that they belong," Arral says.

Two women in lab coats and safety glasses standing in front of laboratory equipment

Source: Mariah Arral

Mariah Arral with Pooja Pandya, whom she mentored as an undergraduate.

"Mariah is a really determined individual who cares deeply about the greater chemical engineering community and advocating for equity across the entire profession," says Halpern, who nominated her for the AIChE 35 Under 35 award. "I think she's just getting started. Once you start seeing where her accomplishments and awards intersect, you see her potential."

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