A commitment to excellence:

The Team adheres to four simple rules. Through daily practice of these rules and a commitment to the scientific process, the team will be greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Get better everyday

  • Work smarter

  • Be safe

  • Have fun


Aaron Teator

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Aaron was born and raised in the major metropolis of Schenectady, NY, located somewhere between Manhattan and Buffalo.  Venturing westward, he received a B.S. degree in chemistry in 2012 from the University of Nevada, Reno where he completed research on the controlled synthesis of 2D polymers in the laboratory of Prof. Benjamin T. King. The smell of BBQ and warm weather lured Aaron to the University of Texas at Austin where he received a Ph.D. in 2016 under the mentorship of Prof. Christopher Bielawski. His graduate studies focused on the design and synthesis of photochromic N-heterocyclic carbenes and unlocking new, externally switchable chemical reactivity. Trading brisket for pork shoulder, Aaron recently joined the Leibfarth group at UNC and is excited to begin exploring new polymerization methods to enable access to functional materials.

Phil Knutson


Phil was born in the mountains of Colorado but spent his childhood roaming the frozen tundra of Minnesota, fueled by lefsa and tater tot hotdish. Despite the bitter cold, Phil chose to stay in Minnesota and spend his undergraduate career at Concordia College in Moorhead graduating in 2013 with a degree in chemistry. He then returned to the mountains to start his graduate career at Colorado State University in the laboratory of Prof. Eric M. Ferreira working in total synthesis. After just a year, the lab moved to the University of Georgia where Phil, for the first time, was reluctantly exposed to temperatures above 50°C. Phil remained in Georgia sweating it out for 5 years to graduate with a Ph.D. in 2019 focusing on synthesizing alkaloids from the yellow-flowering Gelsemium plants. After growing soft in the south, Phil decided he could not move back north and chose to relocate to Chapel Hill where he joined the Leibfarth group as a postdoc working on stereoselective polymer synthesis.

Reach Phil: pknutson [at] email.unc.edu

Graduate Students:

Sally Lewis

Sally LEWIS was born and raised in Falls Church, VA, right in the heart of northern Virginia traffic. Despite her love of sitting still in traffic jams, she moved to the less populated town of Blacksburg, VA, for undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech where she did research in polymer chemistry in the group of Professor John Matson. After four years enjoying the empty mountain roads, the three bars on main street, and the questionable locals in the ‘burg, Sally graduated with a double major in Chemistry and Nanoscience and headed to UNC Chapel Hill to get her Ph.D. in Chemistry. Sally is currently studying fluorinated polymer synthesis (in the lab) and how to keep house plants alive (at home). She is doing well in one of those two things…

Reach Sally at elsally [at] live.unc.edu

Raised among flocks of sheep in the back country of New Zealand, Marcus was instilled with a love for the natural environment at a very early age.  However, due to his deeply ingrained rebellious subconscious, or perhaps laziness, Marcus has been observed occasionally throwing plastic bottles in the trash and improperly disposing of used batteries.  Those who knew Marcus circa 2014 knew of the guilt and demons he struggled with.  Not until working under the tutelage of Dr. Stephen Miller at University of Florida did Marcus realize his environmental sins could be absolved through a whole-hearted and feverish pursuit of green polymer chemistry.  After graduating from UF (2016)  with a B.S in chemistry and a minor in sustainability studies, Marcus moved to UNC where he currently works on using/developing continuous flow chemistry in the hope that others, like himself, may be more efficient and effective in pursuing green polymer research, which will one day lead us all to environmental salvation.

Reach Marcus at marcusr [at] live.unc.edu

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Finding few reasons to leave his beautiful hometown, Travis Varner attended the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. Although he spent his fair share of time on the beach (and in the bars), Travis managed to graduate with a B.S. in Biochemistry in 2016. Following a short hiatus as a rap artist (with hits like “Rotorap” and “Dry Ice Ice Baby”), Travis decided that the life of fame and money was not for him—so, he went to graduate school. He was delighted to join the Leibfarth group at UNC, where his research focuses on polymerization catalysis. When not working in lab, Travis enjoys cooking, memes, being outside, and grappling with deep ethical dilemmas.

Reach Travis at tpvarner [at] live.unc.edu

Jill Williamson

Jill hails from the quiet town of Ruckersville, Virginia, nestled in the countryside of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Since she prefers the beach to the mountains, Jill wanted to go eastward for her college education and attended The College of William & Mary. While there, she dabbled in soccer, chemistry, and parties. Upon obtaining her B.S. in Chemistry in 2016, Jill followed her Carolina-blue heart to Chapel Hill, NC. During the entire pursuit of her Ph.D., it is likely that Jill will continue to claim she is an organic chemist despite making REALLY big molecules that most people call polymers.

Reach Jill at jillwill [at] live.unc.edu

Nick Taylor

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Nick was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but quickly moved to the suburbia of Pennington, NJ, in the search to find better football teams. Despite NJ having better drivers, upfront attitudes, and distinct seasons, Nick chose to attend the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. After four years of pure, unrelenting humidity, Nick graduated with a B.S. in Biochemistry in 2017. He couldn't imagine a life without his former college roommate, Travis Varner, so he followed him to UNC and joined the Leibfarth lab shortly thereafter. Despite having an undergraduate research background exclusively in biochemistry (not polymers), Nick perseveres. His current project focuses on synthesizing fluorinated polymers for in-vivo studies. In his free time, Nick enjoys cooking milk steak, magnets, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia references.

Reach Nick at taylorng [at] live.unc.edu

Robert Johnson

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Rob Johnson was born in Greensborough NC and raised in Wilmington. Not straying too far from home, Rob attended North Carolina State University where he graduated in 2017 with a B.S. in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Brushing aside the rivalry between the two universities, Rob decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry at UNC and joined the Leibfarth group. His current project involves post polymerization modification through photoredox catalysis. Like all those from Wilmington, Rob enjoys long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners.

Reach at rrjohn3 [at] live.unc.edu

Irene Manning


Irene grew up surrounded by golf courses in Pinehurst, NC just down the road from Chapel Hill. Attempting to escape both winter, and her Tar Heel upbringing, she moved to sunny Miami, FL for her undergraduate studies, where she did research in bioorganic chemistry in the lab of Dr. James Wilson at the University of Miami. Despite the lack of Cuban coffee in North Carolina, after graduating in 2018, Irene was excited to return to the Land of the Pines to pursue a PhD in chemistry in the Leibfarth group. When she’s not studying post-polymerization modification, Irene can usually be spotted bundled up in orange and green and drinking a hot beverage any time the temperature drops below 85 degrees.

Reach at irenemm [at] live.unc.edu

Undergraduate Students:

Paige Jacky


Paige was born and raised in Charlotte NC, home of traffic and NASCAR. Deciding to continue the friendly sibling rivalry, Paige followed her brother’s footsteps to UNC and is pursuing a BS in chemistry.  Her interest in polymers and stereochemistry led her to the Leibfarth lab in Spring 2019. When not studying for classes, Paige enjoys leading her Club Softball team and periodically making chemistry puns.


Roscoe is Frank's long-time companion and provides overall group support. Roscoe also does many calculations while in Frank's office. Although Roscoe has yet to share his arduous work with the group, he is convinced it will be of the highest impact. Roscoe loves when everyone comes over to his house so he can convince people to provide him with both affection and snacks!

Wednesday is Marcus’s sweet and sassy pet bunny.  She loves snuggling and strawberries.  However, she is best known for her really big brain.  She offers the group her bountiful knowledge of carrots and leafy greens. Wednesday would love to collaborate with Roscoe but he is intimidated by her intellectual prowess and he might mistake her for a snack!


Bourbon is Travis’s beloved greyhound. After a busy racing career in West Palm Beach, Bourbon was happy to retire on the couch with his forever family! He enjoys eating food, being lazy, and being pet by anyone who will give him attention. Bourbon’s research focuses on the mechanical properties and degradation of squeaky toys.


Chira-L was born in Kittrell, NC, population: 163 including pets (probably), but has spent most of her life in the beautiful town of Chapel Hill. Due to her half mustache and resulting chiral center, her family and friends call her Chira. She is very cautious and protects/alerts her family to any kind of person, pupper, noise, or paper bag nearby. She is also science oriented and in her spare time (when she is not napping or beating up her stuffed bunny toy), she enjoys eating C&En articles and other printed literature. Her theme song is 'This is Me' by Keala Settle. She is "not scared to be seen" and "make[s] no apologies" when she announces "this is me" with loud barks everywhere she goes. After drinking from her water bowl she transforms to her pirate alter ego, Captain Wet-Beard. The location and name of her pirate ship is still unknown.


Ava is Nick’s talkative and sassy kitty cat. Ava enjoys belly rubs, being brushed, and long cuddles. What Ava lacks in mental prowess, she makes up for in spunk, fluff, and love.  She is currently collaborating with Wednesday to create a catnip polymer, which she believes will be the next big cat craze.

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Spock and Toothless are Sally’s two pet Leopard Spotted Geckos. The geckos enjoy listening to Sally’s practice talks and have invaluable input on how to better communicate science to the public. They especially like when cartoon polymer squiggles are in talks because they look like the worms they get to eat.


Hello my name is Sunday!!  I am an Australian shepard pupper, but often get confused for a shark due to my sharp teeth and tendency to nibble human hands. If you couldn’t tell by my pink collar, I’m also a princess and certified C.A.H (cute as heck). Follow me on the gram @Sundaytheaussie to keep up with me and my best friend Wednesday’s shenanigans as we drive our people crazy!


Sadie is Jill’s sidekick and helpful lab assistant. She tests the rubbers of different dog toys and reports which are the strongest. So far, our findings indicate Sadie can tear through Skinny Peltz, Zogoflex Hurley, Nylabone, and Kong chew toys, all of which are listed as “indestructible”. She is currently seeking opportunities to be an Instagram influencer for Extreme Kong - the only toy that has proven mightier than her teeth!


Pictured here is Elizabeth, Sally’s goldfish. Sally picked out Elizabeth from a tank full of feeder fish at a pet store in 2011 and she is still swimming strong! Elizabeth doesn’t get out much since she’s a fish, but she enjoys watching TV with Sally. She especially loves the Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor in Paradise shows and hopes all the contestants find love.


Elango Kumarasamy: Postdoc 2018-2019; currently employed at Conamix Inc.

Shefali Gandai: UNC Undergraduate 2020

Bradley Wilhelmy: UNC Undergraduate 2019

Yaman Peksenar: UNC Undergraduate 2019

Brittany Smith: UNC Undergraduate 2018; Current: Masters of Public Health Program at Emory University

Cullen Davidson: UNC Undergradaute 2018; Current: Graduate school in Chemistry at University of Florida

Bradley Davis: UNC Undergradaute 2018; Current: Graduate school in Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University

Broseidon: Travis's fish 2015-2017