Blossoming in STEM
By Mary Hardbarger
Amy Balija, Ph.D., takes pride in cultivating her students’ scientific pursuits.
A colorful collage of photos hangs on a wall behind the desk of assistant professor of organic chemistry Amy Balija, Ph.D. They depict several of her former research students.
Each frame is titled, “The Balija Lab.”
“They’re silly,” said Balija, smiling as she scanned the wall of photographs this spring. “I have students pose with something they either really love or hate about working in the lab.
“Once new photos are added to the collection, students sign their names below with hopes that years from now they’ll return and have a good laugh as they reflect on the good times they had,” Balija said.
Balija, who just finished her final academic year at Radford University, treasures her students and is an inspiration to many, especially to her female researchers.
“She will be my role model for the rest of my life,” said alumna Twisha Mistry ’20. “She was always there to help guide me on the right path.”
Mistry, of South Boston, Virginia, graduated with a chemistry degree (advanced biochemistry concentration) and a minor in biology. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in chemistry — one she didn’t envision until Balija intervened — from North Carolina Central University.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my bachelor’s degree,” Mistry continued. “I was planning to take a break and work in industry, but she helped me pick the right college and continue my education.”
Balija said she believes in all of her students and works hard to ensure they reach their full potential. As a female educator in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), she also aspires to engage more women in these fields, which are filled predominately by males.
At Radford University, however, Balija has found a large family of female scientists in the Artis College of Science and Technology.
“I feel very honored to work in a college with so many females. This is actually not the norm,” Balija said. A close relationship with a female educator is the very reason Balija became a scientist.
“In the seventh grade, I had this incredible teacher, Mrs. Friedland, who got me excited about science,” she said. “In her classroom, every area was filled with something science related. It was infectious.”
Balija earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Loyola University Chicago and her doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Her academic career began at Fordham University in New York City, where she taught for nine years.
Proximity to family, specifically her sister, a professor at the University of Virginia, brought Balija and her own family to the New River Valley.
Balija recalls her first interview with Radford University faculty and staff.
“I remember how proud everyone was of each other,” she said. “They were so excited about their students and how they were advancing. That care and concern for students are something I share as well.”
Balija started at Radford in 2016 and quickly found a community of scientists, both male and female, who were accepting and supportive of her scientific pursuits.
One aspect of Radford that Balija has most enjoyed is the ability to explore and conduct research alongside her undergraduate researchers.
Her topic of interest is plastic, specifically how plastics — like the bottle of lotion she used as an example — eventually breaks down, turn into fragments or microplastics and pollute the environment.
“Microplastics get into our water systems. Fish eat them, and they move up the food chain,” she explained. “These plastics are in the food that we eat, the water that we drink, the air that we breathe, and they can cause severe health issues, like cancer.”
Balija and her research students have been exposing pink dye to a variety of different plastics and looking at the objects underneath a microscope. They are finding that they all dye differently.
“Our goal is that we can take water samples from local streams, and we can determine not only how many plastics we have in there, but what types of plastics we have in there,” she said.
Students have already collected several samples and presented research on their findings.
Alumna Lauren Purser ’19 is one of Balija’s former research students. She is currently a lab manager at the Antibody Biology Unit of the Laboratory of Immunogenetics at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease division of the National Institutes of Health. “I absolutely wouldn’t be here without Dr. Balija,” Purser said.
Purser’s testimony continues:
“She is the best professor I have ever had the opportunity to learn from. She takes every student personally in the best way. She worked with me not only on the research project but on my life goals. She helped me get the Research for Undergraduates internship at the University of Michigan, where I obtained my first publication as second author. I also had my research used in a congressional testimony, which still blows my mind. She never stops encouraging everyone to reach their goals.”
Beyond Radford, Balija is inspiring women across the globe in her new role as chair of the Women Chemists Committee, a national-level position with the American Chemical Society.
Responsibilities in this role, which she started on January 1, 2021, include leading a team of 29 scientists.
“The Women Chemists Committee advocates for equity and inclusion within the chemical enterprise to provide current and future generations of female scientists opportunities to excel in their fields,” Balija said. “I am honored to be the chair and work with such talented, passionate members to achieve these goals.”
Balija credits Radford for the freedom to explore these different types of leadership roles, ones she may have not considered in the past.
“I’ve been able to challenge myself and move beyond my former comfort zone,” Balija said. “Because of Radford, I’ve grown as an educator and a leader. I am stronger and more confident than ever before.”