Chemistry Graduate Student Levi Knippel describes his research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.
Levi Knippel has lived in ten states from sea to shining sea, but primarily grew up in Wisconsin. A third year graduate student in the Buchwald lab, Levi’s research is currently focused on using copper hydride chemistry to generate enantiomerically enriched organometallic reagents from easy to access precursors such as alkenes, dienes and allenes. These in-situ generated nucleophiles can then be harnessed in a variety of interesting transformations, such as allylations of heterocycles, or palladium-catalyzed cross couplings.
As the subject of this month’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Levi shares the toy that played the biggest role in his childhood, the unique attributes of his hometown, the most unsettling movie he’s ever watched, and more!
- How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
I have always been fascinated by organometallic chemistry. Metals enable access to a variety of targets of biological or material interest, and there are still so many more transformations to discover and understand. I really enjoy building on the fundamental concepts of organic chemistry and learning about these complicated catalytic systems.
- If you could turn any activity into an Olympic sport, what would you have a good chance at winning a medal for?
Whistling? I can whistle with good pitch when breathing in and breathing out, so I think I’d have a pretty good chance at winning.
- If magic was real, what spell would you try to learn first?
A sleeping spell, so I could cast it on myself. I find my mind tends to wander and race at the end of the day.
- If you had a personal flag, what would be on it?
Beer, Cats, and something regal looking, I don’t know. Definitely beer and cats though.
- What weird food combinations do you really enjoy?
Sriracha hot sauce with raw broccoli is actually quite good. I also eat green bell peppers as if they were apples, which tends to get funny looks.
- What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting sick of it?
Probably About a Boy (2002), although I can watch pretty much anything with Hugh Grant in it and not get sick of it. He is just so charming.
- In ancient Egypt, people were buried with the items they would need in the afterlife – what would you want buried with you so you could use it in the afterlife?
A cat, some turntables and records, maybe a few books. That would probably keep me entertained for at least the first 50 years.
- What is the most unsettling movie or TV show you’ve ever seen?
American History X. I’ve only seen it once, and that was enough. It really stuck with me. It’s a brutal look at racism and how those ideologies are transferred from person to person. It gave me a different outlook on how it is all our responsibilities to actively fight racism.
- What is special about the place you grew up?
I grew up in a very small town, where everyone knew everybody. It was very safe, and from an early age we were allowed to freely roam the town and surrounding national forest. I was basically never home, always off running around somewhere with my friends. After living in some other places, I’ve realized most people couldn’t have childhoods like that.
- What brand are you most loyal to?
Probably Pioneer, they make turntables, speakers, headphones, DJ equipment etc. They are more expensive than their competitors but they have excellent customer service and stand by their products.
- If you received a salary to follow whatever passion you wanted to, what would you do?
Although I would want to be a scientist in some capacity no matter what, if I could be guaranteed a salary, I’d want to pursue music. I come from a very musical family, my mother went to college on a singing scholarship, my uncle teaches music and his students regularly win state competitions, and my cousin is an orchestral musician. While I have been playing instruments for years, I was always afraid to pursue a career in music, as it can be very difficult to have financial stability.
- What toy played the biggest part in your childhood, and why?
I had about 40 G.I. Joe action figures. I had the M1-Abrams tank, the helicopter, jeeps, motorcycles, and all manner of outfits. I was an only child, but I’d play with those for hours, setting up elaborate stories. I think my dad still has them all somewhere.
- What is your favorite book of all time?
It’s either Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. While both on their surface are very violent books, they wrestle with similar themes, including conformity, coming of age, and free will. Both had a pretty large impact on me as a teenager, and it’s always interesting to read them again as I get older, and I take different messages from them each time.
- Which is your favorite city in the world?
So far, San Francisco. I lived there while working as a process chemist, prior to coming to graduate school. The people were all friendly, the weather was excellent, and the rent was exorbitant. I’d still love to go back though.
- Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
Dr. Gregory House, Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, and Peter Griffin from Family Guy.
- What food is delicious, but a pain to eat?
Crab, or crayfish, really most crustaceans. It’s a lot of messy work for tiny amounts of tender meat.
- What movie, picture, or video always makes you laugh no matter how often you watch it?
Step Brothers (2008). It’s Will Ferrell and John C Reilly at their best. I probably watch it every month.
- What outdoor activity haven’t you tried, but would like to?
Rock climbing looks fun, although I have always figured I would be bad at it, as I weigh quite a bit, and have horrible finger strength.
- If you were given one thousand acres of land that you didn’t need to pay taxes on but couldn’t sell, what would you do with it?
Assuming in this universe I also have the time to use this land, I would turn it into an animal sanctuary. Something like a big cat rescue, except without killing my significant other and feeding them to a lion.
- What movie universe would be the worst to live out your life in?
I’ll probably get some flack for this, but the Marvel Universe seems like it would be pretty rough. Like, if someone didn’t have superpowers then that would make them beholden to these superheroes and supervillains fighting to control the world all the time. And if someone did have superpowers, they would kind of have a moral obligation to use them, which would probably be pretty frustrating if they just wanted to live a normal life.
Many thanks to Levi for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!