His name is Bippy and he’s the Squishmallow that’s making Kalamazoo College famous.
Squishmallows are soft, squishy, cuddly stuffed animals that come in a variety of colors and sizes, and their popularity has grown exponentially over the past year or so. The K Hornet versions of the plushies—available at the College’s bookstore—are round and orange with thin, black arms; antennae; beady eyes; a friendly smile and a K on their belly.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Daniela Arias-Rotondo, known affectionately to her students as Dr. DAR with her lab students called DARlings, uses a K version named Bippy as her lab’s mascot. He’s helping K gain recognition and students gain opportunities in their field.
“I bought it right away last summer when the Bookstore restocked them because I thought it was the cutest thing,” Arias-Rotondo said. “I thought it would be fun to take him places and he made his debut at the fall ACS (American Chemical Society) conference in Chicago last year. I tweeted beforehand that I was going to have this little guy with me, and I asked, ‘Who else is going to be at the conference?’ It was really fun because a lot of people were excited about it.”
Arias-Rotondo’s lab develops molecules that absorb energy from light while transforming that energy into electricity. Bippy gets his name from 2,2’-bipyridine, which is a key part of [Ru(bpy)3]2+, a ruthenium compound nicknamed “Rubpy.” Ruthenium is a rare and expensive metal.
Rubpy “is a molecule that has been key in the development of photophysics and photocatalysis because it works so well,” Arias-Rotondo said. “One of the problems with it is that it’s very expensive, so we keep trying to find alternatives that are cheaper, greener and more Earth friendly. Yet we use it for now, so Bippy’s name is a nod to a molecule that has had a huge impact on my career and on the field.”
In the meantime, Arias-Rotondo’s reach on Twitter has allowed chemists from all over the world to see Bippy’s pictures and learn about Arias-Rotondo’s and her students’ accomplishments.
“It’s a way for me to say on Twitter, ‘You know me and these are my students,’” Arias-Rotondo said. “I can invite others to go talk to them even if they’re at a conference when I’m not. It’s definitely generating visibility, and if it generates visibility for me and the College, it benefits my students, too, because at the end of the day, they are the ones who need the most opportunities.”
Last winter, Arias-Rotondo wanted Caelan Frazier ’23 and Shay Brown ’23 to take Bippy to the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) Conference in Orlando, Florida. Frazier, a Kalamazoo native, plans to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan and he credits K for preparing him for that with benefits such as small class sizes in a supportive environment and a study abroad experience in Northern Ireland.
Bippy, however, Frazier was unsure of—at least at first.
“At the time I thought, ‘I don’t really know why you want me to take him, but I’m going to trust you on this one,’” he said.
Any remaining skepticism melted away when reputable scientists approached Frazier’s and Brown’s poster presentations to learn about their work, and of course, meet Bippy.
“He ended up being very helpful,” Frazier said. “We sat at a table with a few of the people that Dr. DAR told us to talk to, and immediately three of them said, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s Bippy from Twitter! I know who you guys are.’ It was an incredible conversation starter.”
Since then, Frazier, Brown, Lindsey Baker ’24, Crystal Mendoza ’23 and Maxwell Rhames ’25 have attended the spring ACS conference in Indianapolis with Bippy to similar fanfare for the cuddly plushy, not to mention their work.
“Obviously, Bippy doesn’t directly influence the work that we do, but he very much helps us look forward to presenting it,” Frazier said. “He has shown me that when you go to these conferences and you’re meeting some of the biggest names in science from around the world, they’re still people. And when they see this stuffed animal you’re carrying around, 90% of them are going, ‘Oh, that’s cute. I wonder what that’s about’ and ‘I want to learn more about that.’ I think it’s really important to have that comfort.”
And as beneficial as Bippy is now for her students, Arias-Rotondo hopes his influence will continue in the years ahead.
“We could just have a unicorn or a random stuffed animal, but institutional visibility is important, so the addition of the brand right on Bippy helps a lot,” she said. “I want other students to also get those opportunities and I want people to say, ‘Oh, Kalamazoo College. They put out good chemistry students.’”