Leibfarth, who earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and physics at USD and joined the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill as an assistant professor of chemistry in 2016, received the honor after the magazine searched nationwide for early-career scientists and engineers developing ingenious approaches to problems across a range of disciplines. The Popular Science article highlighted Leibfarth’s work on creating a filter that can remove toxins from polluted waterways.

His selection as one of “The Brilliant 10” is a distinction Leibfarth said he could apply to any number of people he works with on a daily basis.
“I talk to people I consider brilliant every day. I think they’re way smarter than me,” he said. “This award is very fulfilling for me, but it also demonstrates to society the great and important work that’s going on at universities everywhere.”

The problem of purifying water supplies is just one of many that Leibfarth and the 15 post-doctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates in his laboratory at UNC Chapel Hill have tackled. “In the vast majority of my lab’s research, we take a use-inspired basic research philosophy,” he said. “All of our projects are inspired by a problem in the real world. Our goal is to develop a fundamental understanding of reactions that can build materials to solve such challenges.”

Leibfarth’s interest in research started even before he entered USD in 2004 as an undergraduate student and a kicker on the Coyote football team. The summer prior to freshman year, he took on a project studying the Missouri River in his Yankton hometown with history professor and current USD provost Kurt Hackemer, Ph.D. After deciding on chemistry and physics as his majors, he worked in the lab of chemistry professor Ranjit Koodali, Ph.D., now at Western Kentucky University.

“He was an excellent mentor,” Leibfarth said of Koodali. “I was very naïve and he showed me the rules of the road and helped me apply for National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, where I got to spend one summer at Columbia University and one summer at Stanford University.” Other mentors in the chemistry department include Andy Sykes, Ph.D., professor and chair, and Mary Berry, professor emerita and former director of research at USD.

“One of the great advantages I had at USD was that there were many faculty members who identified me as a student who was particularly interested and took a lot of time and effort to provide me with opportunities,” he said.

The chemistry professor said he passes on the help and encouragement he received at USD to his current students at UNC Chapel Hill. “My number one job is supporting the students in my lab,” Leibfarth said. “My number one job is being a mentor. My close number two is being a scientist.”

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