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Nichole Lighthall earned her PhD from the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in 2012. She’s now an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida. In her view, research is an opportunity to solve problems and make the world a better place. Indeed, her current work on the effects of aging on decision-making aims to protect older adults from scams.

According to the FBI’s annual Elder Fraud Report, more than 92,000 victims reported losses totaling $1.7 billion in 2021. This amount is likely just a fraction of the actual losses, since many cases of fraud and abuse go unreported.

Research that solves real-world problems

Dr. Lighthall teaches undergraduate and graduate classes at UCF and runs her own lab. UCF encourages faculty members to pursue collaborative research that has practical applications in the community. Her research builds upon her previous work in decision-making at the USC Leonard Davis School and as a postdoc at Duke University.

One of Dr. Lighthall’s current projects at UCF, funded by the Florida Department of Health Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program, is identifying predictors of vulnerability to scams and fraud. Her team is developing a screening tool to help health care providers identify older adults at higher risk of getting scammed. Her lab is also conducting basic cognitive neuroscience research on trust-related decision making in aging, a project that is funded by the National Institute on Aging.

“You might think cognition and markers of decision-making would be the top predictors of risk,” Dr. Lighthall says. “But it’s more complex than that. Some older adults know their children are taking advantage of them but don’t stop it from happening. Others may be experiencing chronic pain or illness that makes them dependent on the person stealing from them. Our multidisciplinary team is looking at this problem from all angles.”

A multidisciplinary approach to gerontology

At the USC Leonard Davis School, Dr. Lighthall studied in a collaborative, multidisciplinary environment. Her coursework encompassed the whole picture of aging and included topics such as public policy, sociology, biology, psychology and epidemiology. During classes, weekly meetings and seminars, she interacted with a wide range of people with diverse interests in aging.

For several years, Dr. Lighthall received support from a T32 training grant under the supervision of Professor Eileen Crimmins, PhD. “The training program was transformative,” Dr. Lighthall says. “As fellows, we learned together and shared our experiences. The grant also provided funding so I could focus on research instead of working as a teaching assistant.”

Mentors who provide guidance, support and inspiration

Dr. Lighthall’s principal advisor for her dissertation research was Mara Mather, PhD. With Dr. Mather, Dr. Lighthall studied how short-term stress impacted learning and decision-making. This work was Dr. Lighthall’s first experience studying decision-making.

“You can imagine the evolutionary benefit of stress when it causes you to pay attention to important information in your environment,” Dr. Lighthall says. “This mechanism helps you avoid potentially harmful experiences and make rewarding choices in the future.” Dr. Lighthall and Dr. Mather also studied gender and age differences in decision-making under stress.

In addition to Dr. Mather and Dr. Crimmins, Dr. Lighthall found other mentors at USC Leonard Davis School. Professor Elizabeth Zelinski, PhD shared Dr. Lighthall’s interest in cognitive psychology and provided keen guidance when she started thinking about her future. Professor Caleb Finch, PhD was also a role model for Dr. Lighthall for his long and productive career.

Even years later, Dr. Lighthall keeps in touch with her USC Leonard Davis School colleagues. At a meeting last spring, she saw Dr. Mather and a fellow PhD student and postdoc from her lab. “These are people I’ve built strong bonds with,” she says. “I lean on them as part of my professional network and as my sounding board for professional issues.”

Finding a passion and following it

For Dr. Lighthall, following your passion is the key to sustaining a long career. As a first-generation undergraduate at UC Berkley, Dr. Lighthall discovered a keen interest in psychology.

That interest led to a summer research fellowship at Stanford University to study stress as a risk factor for age-related cognitive decline. Of course, that work led her to Dr. Mather at USC Leonard Davis School. As Dr. Lighthall completed her PhD, a love of research and mentoring students inspired her to pursue an academic path.

Recently, Dr. Lighthall received an invitation to join the Global Young Academy (GYA), an organization that aims to empower young scientists. During her five-year GYA term, she will be working in multidisciplinary and multinational teams to address scientific and societal problems.

Throughout her education and career, Dr. Lighthall has taken a problem-focused approach. “Helping people and seeing the positive outcomes of my work is very satisfying,” she says.

To learn more about PhD programs at the USC Davis School of Gerontology, call us at (213) 740-5156.


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