USA TODAY honors USD student

USA TODAY honors USD student
Frank Leibfarth, a chemistry and physics double major at The University of South Dakota, is not like most other undergraduates. For starters, he doesn't watch television. Ever. He also doesn't have much time to spend on his favorite hobbies, like biking. Last summer, while researching in California, he only took time out once a week to enjoy the celebrated terrain around San Jose. That's because when he's not kicking game-winning field goals during playoff games for the Coyote football team, or brushing up on his acting chops in theatre class, he's running tests on breakthrough chemicals with world-class scientists across the country.

In recognition of Leibfarth's incredible drive and academic achievement, USA TODAY has named him to the All-USA College Academic First Team. More than 600 students across the nation submitted applications, but only 20 students earned this prestigious honor.

"It feels really amazing and causes me to reflect on my place in the undergraduate scene. I was happy to be in the position even to apply for it, and to be selected for it is great," said Leibfarth.


The All-USA College Academic Team honors full-time undergraduates who not only excel in scholarship but also extend their intellectual abilities beyond the classroom to benefit society. Criteria include grades, academic rigor, leadership, activities and most important, the student's essay describing his or her most outstanding intellectual endeavor in college.

"What I ended up writing about was the work I did this summer at IBM's research center in San Jose," said Leibfarth.

Leibfarth worked with a group of scientists to analyze and develop environmentally safe chemicals known as organocatalysts.

According to Leibfarth, these chemicals provide several important advantages over traditional catalysts, which are chemicals responsible for speeding up or slowing down chemical reactions and are often used in industrial manufacturing.

First, scientists enjoy a higher degree of control over reactions involving Organocatalysts. In addition, because of their carbon base, organocatalysts are much more environmentally friendly than traditionally used chemical catalysts.

"When you catalyze reactions using metal, you have metal waste and that's not good for the environment," said Leibfarth.

In addition to the rigorous scientific experimentation in which Liebfarth participated, the diverse nature of the project placed him in the "lynchpin position," among the scientists he served. As such, his role was often that of a liaison between chemists in a variety of specializations. By helping to unify their understanding of the mechanisms behind the reactions, he brought them closer to applying the chemicals to products that can improve the quality of human life, such as drug delivery devices, prosthetics and IBM microelectronics.

Leibfarth credits several faculty and staff at USD for helping him to focus his academic curiosities and hone his intellectual talents.

Susan Hackemer, associate director of the Honors Program, paid personal attention to his specific educational needs and helped to guide his development as a student.

Hackemer said she believes Leibfarth's strength of character and work ethic will set him upon a path to continued success.

"Frank is instinctively curious and fearless, which allows him to try things without concern for failure. Combine these traits with his intellectual gifts and disciplined work ethic and one has a rare and remarkable student. I look forward to watching his bright future unfold in bold and surprising ways," said Hackemer. Leibfarth noted that Hackemer helped him to organize and package his educational experiences for his applications for multiple honors, including the Goldwater scholarship and the All-USA College Academic First Team.

Leibfarth also credits Ranjit Koodali, a professor of chemistry at the university who has been his mentor for the past year.

His project to combine precious metal chemistry, polymer chemistry, catalysis and photochemistry is an idea that could have far reaching implications for future research projects related to harnessing solar energy in Dr. Koodali's group as well as the SD Governor's 2010 center of excellence, Center for the Research and Development of Light-Activated Materials (CRDLM) at USD.

In fact, these faculty and staff members were instrumental in Leibfarth's decision to become a Coyote in the first place.

Leibfarth said he was convinced that he did not want to attend USD until he came for a campus visit and interviewed with several staff including Karen Olmstead, dean of graduate education.

"I didn't think I wanted to go here, but it was really excellent. No question, it was the people here that made me decide to come to school here. I remember it was supposed to be a 15-minute interview. Then it turned into 25 minutes. I'd interviewed at other places and it was nothing like this. Everybody was laughing and having a good time and I thought, 'This is the kind of atmosphere I want to be a part of,'" Leibfarth said.

Ultimately, Leibfarth sees his career path as one that will take him into either industry or academics. Right now, he's leaving both options open, although he admits that he's leaning more toward pursuing academia so he can pass on what he has learned to future generations of chemists.

"Just the idea of being able to go into a lab and make something that nobody has seen, maybe something nobody else has thought of, and being able to see that become useful is exciting," Leibfarth said. Leibfarth hopes to be a part of the solution to what he calls the energy challenge, and when he speaks of helping to create the world's first viable hydrogen fuel cell, or finding an effective way to harness the energy from the sun, his voice raises with anticipation of the challenges he'll face.

Leibfarth has plans to stay connected to the university, and to the Vermillion area no matter where life takes him. "Football will be the easiest way. I'll always be checking the Web site to see how we're doing. And I know guys who are five years younger than me, so that's five built in years of contact."

He also intends to maintain contact with his professors, when he attends future American Chemical Society Meetings. "The same professors will be (at the meetings). My parents live in Yankton. I'll be around," Leibfarth said.

Photos of Leibfarth appeared in the Life section of the Feb. 15 issue of USA TODAY. Forty runners-up named to the Second and Third Teams received certificates, and their names were announced in the newspaper.

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