Nicholas Ball is training a new generation of chemists and developing new methods for the synthesis and activation of sulfur(VI) fluorides, a class of compounds used as reactive probes for protein identification and as inhibitors in chemical biology. Ali McKnight spoke with Ball about his work as an educator at a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Chattanooga, Tennessee
Education: BA, Macalester College, 2005; PhD, University of Michigan, 2011
Current position: Associate professor of chemistry, Pomona College
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay man
I overcame adversity when: There are too many to articulate, but I will say for me, my Blackness has always been more of an issue than my queerness. The oppression, bias, adversity, etc. that I have faced is more due to how people process my skin color and our enterprise to suppress and devalue it than my queerness. This is true in my work, walking down the street, existing.
Go-to stress reliever: I really enjoy working out and wheel throwing. One strengthens my mind and body; the other taps into my creativity.
Ali McKnight: How did you get into chemistry?
Nicholas Ball: My introduction to chemistry was in high school in Tennessee. My high school teacher, Mr. Odom, really wanted to give students a sense of how you can manipulate compounds and make cool things. So we made wintergreen flavoring from aspirin with windshield wiper fluid as our solvent.
When I went to Macalester College, I went to a bridge program for students of color during the summer before we matriculated. I took a class in organic chemistry, and when fall came, the professor, Ronald Brisbois, was like, “Hey, you want to work in a research lab instead of working in a cafeteria for your work study?” And I said, “Sure.”
AM: Can you speak about your thought process for picking your current research area?
NB: So I dealt with fluorine in graduate school doing organometallic chemistry with Melanie Sanford. I wrote an original research proposal on sulfur dioxide insertion into useful materials, then completely forgot about it. By happenstance, I found out about phenylmethylsulfonyl fluoride—a S(VI) fluoride—during my postdoc with David Tirrell while doing protein overexpression. What finally clicked all the pieces together for me was the paper that Barry Sharpless published on the use of sulfonyl fluorides as synthetic tools. It has been a trove of really cool fundamental scientific questions that has really kept my lab and collaborators busy.
AM: What was the appeal of working at a PUI?
NB: Chemistry provides a lot of opportunities. If you are able to tap into that, it really provides a broad range of experience that can transfer to anything. I want to help students see and gain those opportunities. The best place that I thought that I could do that is in a non-PhD-granting institution. Now, if I were going to work at an R1 institution [a large research-focused institution], I would want a good work-life balance. I think that’s why a lot of queer people of color go into industry. There is HR [in industry], while faculty regulation at an institution can vary a lot. There can be clearer structures of how to get promoted, versus tenure and promotion in academia.
AM: As someone who also went to a PUI, I have benefited from the environment of professors focusing on developing the skill sets of students. In that vein, what does your advocacy for students look like?
NB: As a tenured faculty member, I have a lot of privilege. I mean, it is supreme job security. On the other hand, as someone who identifies as a Black man, anything I critique is going to be considered an attack, and that is exhausting. I have had to advocate for myself really strongly. I think that is a really important skill to have because if you can’t be a strong advocate for yourself, then you are not modeling that behavior for others. My model for advocating for students is to meet them where they are: listen to their story, have them think about the challenges they are facing and what resolution they want, be there to work with them, but set boundaries. My voice means something, and I am not going to advocate for something that I do not believe in or feel comfortable with. For me, advocacy is about clear communication of responsibilities and needs, making it clear how to gain resources, and having empathy with how challenging it can be to navigate systems.
I’ll say this: as a queer Black person who did not grow up with wealth, it is challenging to hear my colleagues ask, “What about the most vulnerable community members? What about these resources they don’t have?” Even if it is not the intent, it comes across as if someone is deficient, less than. Why? Because I was that person. There are a lot of things I did not know or have because of my background. What was transformational for me was to know what I did have, what I was capable of, and how to find people and resources to support that. However, I choose now to move away from a deficit model in my mentoring. Instead, I’m working toward advocating for what people deserve and desire and to work with them toward those goals. In this regard, I am constantly failing, learning, and growing, but it is worth it to me.
AM: It’s an interesting paradigm that you see frequently in conversations about accommodation and accessibility in higher education. It is White saviorism. A person in power not asking what you need in order to be successful but dictating what they think you need to be successful based on biases that they have.
NB: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. If you really want to get into it, the longer that me and my Black queer body are part of the institution of higher education, the more I’m going to be a part of the system. I’m trying to recognize that this is happening and make sure I’m aware of it. That’s why I’m constantly trying not to take on the habits of those who have tried to prevent us from being in these spaces. I don’t want to become a person who cannot stand having their ideas being questioned or challenged.
How have things been going for you in your work?
AM: In my search for a grad program I was really interested in working for an early-career woman who was doing interesting synthetic chemistry, and that is exactly what I got. But it’s all the trials and tribulations of working for an unestablished lab. And while I enjoy the work and who I work with, it can be a lot.
NB: Yeah, it’s a marathon.
AM: What do you want your legacy to be like in 20 years’ time?
NB: That I had a voice, and I used it for myself and for others; that I was always there for folks who needed me. I know the core of my truth and the essence of what I bring to the table is beyond what I can do scientifically. My legacy will be my students. I am bringing in a lot of students who have not had any previous research experience whatsoever and want to give them the opportunity to tap into the fun of chemistry. But quite frankly, I’m not really thinking about my legacy right now. I’m just trying to do good work and get my bills paid.
AM: I really resonate with that. I want to get my bills paid. I want to be able to have fun doing my job and enjoy what I’m doing. Anything else that comes after that is just a bonus.
Hometown: New York City
Education: BA, Reed College, 2020
Current position: PhD candidate, organic synthesis, York University, Christine Le’s lab
LGBTQ+ identity: Queer and genderfluid
Favorite lab tool: The rotovap! It is the workhorse of our lab, and it does not get the respect and recognition it deserves.
Best professional advice you’ve received: Don’t go to graduate school just because you have no other job offers.
NB: It is important to be where I am wanted. I really enjoy my job. I enjoy where I live. I enjoy where I work. My institution and I both benefit from each other. Although I have come to understand that with my Black queer body, the benefit is not always equal. My institution benefits more from the value I bring than the other way around. And it’s not being conceited. It is not being overinflated. It’s just a fact. There’s a lot of things that our employers, your department, my college is gaining for our Black and Brown and queer bodies being in that space. The minute they’re not appreciating that, it is time to direct our value elsewhere.
This is a very big paradigm shift, especially in academia, because people stay in a job for forever and put up with a lot. As queer people, we are persistently subjected to physical, emotional, and societal violence. My wish for you, myself, and our queer scientific community is that we lean into our worth, practice boundaries with our work, and preserve our magic.