A summer without students? Gearing up for pre-tenure sabbatical…

In this first installment of our 2018 “summer research profiles” series, we meet Dr. Nick Ball of Pomona College, preparing for a pre-tenure sabbatical. What is a pre-tenure sabbatical, you ask? Leveraging time and resources to establish and prepare your undergraduate research lab for the future. We’ll let Nick tell you all about it…


It’s the end of the semester – are grades submitted? Check. Lecture notes put away? Check. Commencement? Check. So what’s next? Typically, this is the time of year where I would be preparing for the arrival of summer research students in my lab. I usually start by asking myself a few questions to make sure everything is in order: Who’s going to be on which project? What chemicals do I need? Did they turn in their housing applications? However, this year is different. This year, I start a year of research without my students. But first, a little bit of background.

I have worked hard to build a strong, inclusive, vibrant lab environment where students not only work hard, learn a lot, own their work, but most importantly,  have fun…

In 2015, I moved to Pomona College from another liberal arts institution on the East Coast. Armed with new glassware, a glovebox, lab space, and eager students, my research program focuses on using catalysts to convert common pollutants into high value organic products. Running an undergraduate research lab at Pomona for the past 3 years has been a fantastic experience. I’ve had the honor of mentoring 18 students (including six thesis students), developing them into burgeoning scientists and publishing papers! I have worked hard to build a strong, inclusive, vibrant lab environment where students not only work hard, learn a lot, own their work, but most importantly,  have fun! As this summer begins, I’m faced with putting much of these student-focused efforts on hold as I embark on my pre-tenure sabbatical leave.

As this summer begins, I’m faced with putting much of these student-focused efforts on hold as I embark on my pre-tenure sabbatical leave.

 

 

Moving into the new Ball Lab Space; Summer 2017

What’s a pre-tenure sabbatical?

Good question! Most colleges and universities offer a period of time where you can dedicate your full effort towards research. Some offer a sabbatical before tenure. At Pomona, upon successful completion of a third-year review (think of it as a mini-tenure review process) we are granted a full-year of paid leave from teaching and service. What are the institution’s expectations for the sabbatical? Expectations vary, but the main purpose is to have dedicated time focused exclusively on research. As a result, most science faculty on their pre-tenure sabbatical partially or completely pare down the number of students in their lab and either hunker down in their own lab alone, or join a research lab off campus. For me, I wanted this time to develop new research skills to help position my laboratory for the long term.

Ball lab summer outing at the Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena 2016

Reconnecting with the field

The goals for pre-tenure sabbatical can vary for everyone. I intend on exploring new avenues of research and using the dedicated time to focus on additional grant writing.  So where am I going – literally? I will be working as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Dr. Jennifer Love’s group at the University of British Columbia (UBC). While in Canada, I’ll be working on activating bonds containing fluorine using nickel catalysts. This is an area of my work that I would like to strengthen and Prof. Love is one of the top researchers in this field. She has been so gracious to provide me with this wonderful opportunity and I am eager to learn.

The goals for pre-tenure sabbatical can vary for everyone. I intend on exploring new avenues of research and using the dedicated time to focus on additional grant writing.

Additionally, I will have a thesis student (a Beckman Scholar at Pomona) who I will be supervising remotely on his thesis project. He is one of several incredible students who are on an upcoming publication from my lab and his work will continue with some fantastic collaborators we have with Pfizer (Dr. Christopher am Ende). During my pre-tenure sabbatical, I will also be engaged in developing existing projects I have with collaborators at Cal State Polytechnic Pomona (Dr. Chantal Stieber), Pomona (Dr.  Daniel O’Leary) and Chapman University (Dr. Maduka Ogba). Above all else, I will be furiously writing grants to ensure these efforts can be sustained!

…nothing prepared me for the tough conversations of telling some very special folks that I’d be leaving for the year…

First Pomona thesis students: Izzy and Phillip

The unexpected long goodbye

One aspect of pre-tenure sabbatical no one prepared me for was the long process of letting go. I have spent three years building my research lab, developing my courses, mentoring and advising students but nothing prepared me for the tough conversations of telling some very special folks that I’d be leaving for the year. Not surprisingly, much of my time lately has been spent meeting with research students and helping them make arrangements to find another thesis advisor for next year. I’ve had to have similar conversations with my advisees on the need to find a temporary academic advisor. Of course, I have no doubts that these students will be in excellent hands, but it doesn’t make it any easier. No one talks about the guilt of letting go, and the trepidation of having to start again in a year, but this dedicated research time is needed. I’ve come to recognize that my sabbatical will make me a stronger teacher, researcher, and mentor. One month to go and then I will be on my own journey! Next stop, Canada!

 

 


1441055773Dr. Nicholas D. Ball is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, CA where he does research in organometallic chemistry and catalysis with undergraduates.

 

 

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