Growing up in a military family, Dontarie Stallings had a nomadic childhood, moving between US military bases, but he felt most at home in San Diego. He dreamed of becoming an astronaut and an aerospace engineer, and his father encouraged him: “Anything you want to be, you can become.” His dad’s advice for approaching a distant dream was to take the next best step. Stallings knew his first step should be college. Playing high school football led to a scholarship, which allowed him to be the first in his family to go to college.
Stallings studied at Georgia Southern University (GSU), intending to transfer schools to an engineering program. Those plans changed when his chemistry professor, Todd Deal, recognized his aptitude for chemistry. Deal invited him to do undergraduate research while working around his football schedule. “He believed in me in a way no one had besides my family,” Stallings recalls. Deal suggested he go to gradaute school, and Stallings was surprised he could get paid to learn. “You can’t beat that!” he says. He applied to several PhD programs, but impostor syndrome led him to decline some prominent chemistry programs. Finances were also on his mind, and so he chose the University of Alabama, where his stipend would go further. UA was the “least diverse place” he’d ever been. “I think I was the fourth or fifth domestic Black PhD in chemistry,” he says. However, his research adviser, John B. Vincent, was a strong supporter and inspired him to be an advocate for science.
Stallings did not feel inspiring in his first job as an assistant professor back at GSU. “I thought I was good; I was horrible,” he recalls. “It took me a while until I was able to be a public speaker that was effective.” As GSU’s first Black faculty member in a science, technology, engineering, or math department, Stallings also felt he lacked the support he needed to succeed. He loved teaching and his students but not academia. So after a few years teaching at GSU and universities in Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia, in 2015 he joined the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) to work on science policy and faculty diversity. It was a big change, but having a career that can evolve and grow “is so much more fulfilling than cashing a check and getting tenure,” he says.
Stallings is now in San Diego and back in academia as a professor, this time at the University of California San Diego, while continuing with OXIDE. He works with a diverse group of students, showing them how to balance life, the lab, and their studies. “They want me here for the type of work I do” in diversity and equity, he says of UCSD, and he appreciates that the faculty is on board. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this professionally happy in my life.”
This story was updated on April 20, 2022, to correct the name of Dontarie Stallings’ PhD adviser. It is John B. Vincent, not John Benson.