“At first, I didn’t really know what you could do with a chemistry degree,” says Aria Ballance. “But I loved it so much that I stuck with it, and it has paid off. I’m glad I followed my ‘bliss.’”
A graduate student in chemistry at the U, Ballance is the recent recipient of the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Her love for chemistry has led her to research a wide variety of topics, from water-purifying titanium dioxide clay pots to nanoparticles and chiral molecules in Dr. Jennifer Shumaker-Parry’s nanomaterials lab.
While applying for the fellowship, Ballance made a remarkable connection between her previous research and a U.S. Air Force project focused on distinguishing between Earth and extraterrestrial molecules. Though her research originally focused on the medical sphere, Ballance’s curiosity and love for space exploration inspired her to advance her research toward the Space Force project’s objective. Ballance explains, “They released a Broad Agency Announcement asking for a proposal that could enhance the signal of potential extraterrestrial molecules from meteorites. And I thought, ‘Oh, okay! My nanoparticles could probably do something like that.”
Ballance’s current research involves fabricating gold crescent shaped nanostructures she refers to as "nanocrescents." When the nanocrescents interact with an incident light, they create plasmons that she is using to try to enhance the molecular signal of small chiral molecules. She recalls the exciting moment when she made the connection: “One of the things they are looking for when searching for extraterrestrial molecules and signs of life is chirality,” a geometric property in which an object or molecule cannot be superimposed on its mirror image. “A lot of nanoparticles are used to enhance molecular signals, so I was shocked that no one was using them to find aliens!”
Ballance points to science fiction as one of her sources of inspiration in her work and credits her love of Star Trek for inspiring her to apply for the highly competitive fellowship. Additionally, Ballance cites other sources of inspiration in her day-to-day life, including her fellow lab members, Amy Morren and Anh Nguyen, and her mentor, Dr. Shumaker-Parry, for making her experience at the University of Utah so fulfilling. “Dr. Shumaker-Parry has given me so many opportunities and has helped me grow exponentially as a scientist. Her incredible work with nanoparticles is what inspired me to apply to graduate school and become a chemist.” When the deadline for the fellowship came around, Ballance was going through a difficult personal matter and almost did not apply. But with the support and encouragement of her mentor, she submitted the application. She’s glad she did.
Ballance emphasizes that submitting the application even under less-than-ideal circumstances taught her how much you can achieve when you let go of the fear of failure and really trust yourself. As a self-proclaimed over thinker, Ballance points out that the pressure to do things perfectly the first time can often hold her back. “If I just trust the process, I do better,” she says. “I think I would’ve done better on tests in high school if they could see all the things I had erased,” she says, jokingly. For Ballance, embracing imperfection and welcoming the unknown are keys to her success. “There are so many variables in chemistry, science, and life in general that you can change, and it's just not linear. And I really think that people should be making mistakes.”
Above all, Ballance feels the most support and love from her mom and younger sister. “My mom raised me and my sister alone and taught us how to love the world around us even when things feel like they may be falling apart.” As for her sister, “she is the bravest, strongest person I know, and the closest friend I have in the world.”
Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Ballance remembers her high school years being filled with academic competition and the pressure to perform perfectly. After deciding to take a summer chemistry course at a local college to fix a mistake in her schedule, she found herself surrounded by adults in a lab filled with chemicals she’d never worked with. “It was terrifying,” Ballance said, “especially the labs, because everyone knew what they were doing. I was scared of that class for so long, but I was determined to finish it. “I ended up doing really well and learning more about myself and the course material than I had in any other class.” Her triumph in the class gave her the confidence she needed, and she’s been enamored with the world of chemistry ever since.
Along with her undergraduate chemistry degree from Lewis & Clark College, Ballance also completed a minor in theater, discovering a refreshing “balance” between the two fields. “I feel like I can lose a lot of creative energy being in the science world, where you are dependent on repetition of trials and replicating your experiments. And that’s why I really want to encourage the science and art worlds to combine. I think it's really important that people go to see art and performances to spark that creative energy.”
Balance and Bliss
Drawn to the U by her love for the outdoors and her desire to get involved with research, Ballance applied and was accepted into the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Dr. Shumaker-Parry’s lab after her senior year at Lewis & Clark College. Determined to continue doing research, she hunted for more experience back home in Santa Barbara before applying to graduate school, and was accepted into the U later that year.
Ballance makes the most of her time living in Utah, going backpacking, hiking, climbing, and skiing whenever she can. “I really love the outdoors,” she says. “If I had a dream job it would be working outside and doing chemistry.”
Following graduate school, Aria Ballance plans to achieve her dream of living abroad while completing a post-doctoral fellowship. In the meantime, she’ll continue to explore her love of chemistry while she carefully plans her new chapter of adventures.
“I haven’t figured out where I’m going to go yet, but my plan is to work hard, not give up and to follow my bliss.” Right now, her bliss is decidedly a chemical one.
By Julia St. Andre
Science Writer Intern