2023 KNI Catalyst Award Profile: Levi Palmer

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Levi Palmer is a fourth year graduate student in Chemistry in Scott Cushing's lab.

Levi Palmer

June 30, 2023

What is your research focus and areas of scientific interest? How has the KNI played a role in your research?


I’m developing ultrafast electron microscopy and electron energy loss spectroscopy to image photoexcited charge carrier transport in nanoscale photocatalysts. The KNI has provided my only formal training in electron microscopy, which helps me collect the best images possible in the SEM and TEM. The KNI staff, in particular, have helped me stay motivated and curious in nanoscience while our lab is developing relatively new microscopy techniques.

Why did you decide to come to Caltech for your graduate studies?


I was really excited to join a small community very focused on science. Additionally, I had an amazing SURF experience with Professor Harry Atwater in 2018. The SFP office made the summer internship the best time of my life, and I felt really welcomed by the CCID staff as an LGBTQIA+ student. The amazing weather was also definitely a draw!


Please say a few words about your academic path. Was there anything in particular that drove you to continue in STEM?


I’m from Minnesota and graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. I was originally a chemical engineering major, but I decided that the chemical and physical sciences (rather than engineering) were far more interesting, so I switched majors. My ultimate goal at the time was to become a professor, but all the jobs in chemistry that interested me required a Ph.D. I also really love the freedom and creativity that comes with academics.


What volunteer or community service-based work have you been involved in?


I have definitely grown the most in grad school through PRISM and the Diversity in Chemistry Initiative (DICI). PRISM, Caltech’s LGBTQIA+ organization, has helped me stay engaged with our community through social events and programming. PRISM and gender diversity club are the main places queer and trans folks have to socialize and build community, and our team and the CCID helped keep it going through the pandemic. DICI has also helped build an inclusive community on campus, and I designed a couple outreach programs with DICI and Pasadena City College.


What inspired (and inspires) your involvement in these areas and activities?


My mom has been my biggest inspiration because of her dedication to her community and job as a Spanish teacher and counselor at my high school. She raised me to give back to others. These days, seeing younger students excited about science inspires me to keep doing impactful work.


What ways have you found to balance the responsibilities and activities you partake in? What does your support network look like?


I try to alternate commitments based on my excitement and energy levels. By working with PRISM or DICI, I can productively procrastinate my lab work and vice versa. I also love socializing, so talking with my lab mates and other friends helps me stay grounded. Overall, I’ve really relied on my partner during grad school. He is always there for me and has helped me get through some really rough times the last few years.


In what ways has your experience at Caltech shaped your identity or values?


Because Caltech and grad school are very rigorous, I honestly have found it difficult to express my personality, sexuality, and energy here. Although others are welcoming, it’s difficult to express yourself when often working alone in the sub-basement! Otherwise, Caltech has taught me to rely on our community, learn from others, and build a reliable network. I really value feedback from my mentors, and that has helped me learn and grow.


Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started grad school that you know now? In other words, what advice would you give to your younger self?


Start saving money from your stipend right away if you have the opportunity. Grad school and adulting come with many unexpected costs, and a small savings fund helps on rainy days.

What plans or goals do you have post-graduation?


I’m still deciding what I want to do after graduating. My problem is that I’m excited about everything between academia, industry, and government. I think I want to try interning with Apple to explore industry life. My dream job would still probably be working as a professor at the University of Minnesota to be close to my family, but I’m open to any exciting possibility.