Chemistry Professor Nicholas Ball Honored as Trailblazer

Professor Nicholas Ball head and shoulders photograph

Nicholas Ball, associate professor of chemistry at Pomona College, has been named a 2022 Trailblazer by Chemical & Engineering News, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, in its special Trailblazers issue dated April 11.

“This collection gives voice to LGBTQ+ members of the chemistry community and celebrates their contributions,” writes Tehshik P. Yoon, Ph.D., guest editor of the issue and chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Our hope is to provide visibility to a population that has been marginalized for far too long.” Ball is one of 18 current members of the chemistry community included in the issue.

Ball joined the Pomona faculty in 2015 and teaches courses in organic and inorganic chemistry. “We’re thrilled that Nick has been recognized as a trailblazer. It’s truly an amazing group of individuals,” says Chuck Taylor, chair of Pomona’s chemistry department. “Nick’s work in developing inclusive classes and equitable access to research opportunities has been well received and is a model that many are following. We are delighted to have him as a colleague.”

Ball’s research lab focuses on organometallic chemistry, which uses metals to facilitate organic reactions, and catalysis. The goal is to develop new chemical reactions that have applications in medicinal chemistry, organic chemistry, catalysis, materials, machine learning, and electrochemistry. “We are deeply curious—not only developing new reactions, but understanding how they work,” Ball notes in describing the lab’s research agenda. “Additionally, we are interested in developing predictive computational tools to help predict if reactions will occur (machine learning) and using light and electricity to make organic compounds.”

This summer, Ball expects to have a research team of 12, which will include a number of Pomona students, some of whom have never before worked in a lab. “I’m really excited about that,” Ball says. Funding comes in part from a National Institutes of Health grant and from Ball’s 2020 Henry Dreyfuys Teacher-Scholar Award.

Ball credits teachers both in high school and college with inspiring his fascination with chemistry—something he works to pass along to his own students today. While enrolled in a summer bridge program between high school and college for students of color, he was introduced to organic chemistry. When Ball started his freshman year at Macalester College in the fall, the chemistry professor who had taught the class asked if he would like to work in his lab. “So, I never really thought I could do chemistry,” Ball remarks. “I just happened to have people around me that saw something and kind of helped to develop that.”

On his lab web site, Ball writes that “One of the joys of my job and work is introducing students to undergraduate research and helping them develop into scientists.” He notes that “Our job in the Ball lab is to meet you where you are and create an environment where you can learn and grow. If you don't know something you will! We learn through sharing knowledge and working things out together!”

Ball considers the designation as a Trailblazer to be a deep honor, yet also admits to “a little bit of sadness, because for the 18 people who are being honored as Trailblazers this particular year, there’s probably a factor of ten people who identify as LGBTQ+ but for whatever reasons in the workplace or in their lives, they just can’t be out in the open.” His wish is “for people to have safety, value, peace of mind, and to be able to thrive for once.”