UT professor Kate Biberdorf, Ph.D., better known as Kate the Chemist, wows audiences to ignite interest in science
Spewing a mouthful of cornstarch into the flame of a blowtorch, KATE BIBERDORF, PH.D., creates a spectacular fireball that teaches a powerful science lesson about chemical reactions. An associate professor of instruction in the chemistry department at the University of Texas at Austin, she is perhaps better known as Kate the Chemist, a science entertainer who has appeared in person on “The Wendy Williams Show,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Today.” Amid the COVID-19 crisis, she switched to virtual segments with “Today” and appeared on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” via webcam.
Biberdorf’s pièce de résistance is a thundercloud she creates by combining liquid nitrogen with hot water for a smoky, explosive sensation that teaches phase changes—liquids turning into gas and crackling ice—or illustrates the thermodynamic transfer of energy. The 34-year-old released two books during the pandemic: the nonfiction “Kate the Chemist: The Big Book of Experiments” and “Kate the Chemist: Dragons vs. Unicorns”—a middle grade novel (the first in a series) featuring a version of her 10-year-old self who solves neighborhood problems using science. Both arrived just in time for parents and children, many engaged in at-home learning, looking for fun ways to explore science.
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Q | What’s some good chemistry advice about COVID-19?
A | The one thing I’m telling everyone is to make sure to wash your hands. What we’ve learned about this virus is that is has a weak membrane. It’s not necessarily the fact that you’re using soap on your hands for 20 seconds; it’s the fact that you’re using your fingernails to break that membrane apart—rip that virus apart—and then you’re allowing the soap to grab ahold of it. So make sure you’re really scrubbing when you’re washing your hands.
Q | Tell me about shifting to online learning at UT.
A | I had about 800 students in the spring, but we actually team teach, so the three of us tackled the remaining spring semester together. We came up with extra programs, worksheets and videos—anything we could do to help our students since we weren’t there in person to coach them through these difficult topics. I am teaching this summer online. The fall is going to be interesting. We are trying to figure out how we can get our students in the lab without them being in virus-infected rooms. We don’t want our students exposed to COVID, but we have to find a way to give them solid lab skills.
Q | What’s been your most surprising student interaction during this time?
A | It was an email from a former student who wanted to know, from a chemistry standpoint, the best way to protect themselves if they get hit with tear gas at these peaceful protests. My first response was anger, followed by pride that we were going to stand up for our Black colleagues and friends and then just pure joy that he realized it was a chemistry question and I could nerd out with him.
Q | What’s the chemistry answer to: What do I do if I get hit with tear gas?
A | The answer isn’t good. With tear gas, there really isn’t an antidote. You will see a lot of stuff online about using milk. Milk won’t help with tear gas, but will help with capsaicin—that’s pepper spray—because the fats in milk are able to dissolve the capsaicin. So you want whole milk. I’ve also seen online about a baking soda solution, but that doesn’t seem like the right kind of chemistry. From my standpoint, if you somehow get exposed to tear gas, it’s really a threefold solution: You hold your breath and you run like hell. Tear gas is flammable, so there’s a whole other piece that’s not being talked about. The second thing is to get your clothing off if you can because the molecules are going to stick to the fabric. The last thing is that you need to use water—as much as you can. The chemistry here is all about dilution. You want to flush that material off of your face. Lean forward, close your eyes and mouth, and keep hitting your face with water for at least 15 minutes. If you get the tear gas in your eyes, it’s highly recommended to flush with saline solution, if you have that.
Q | What’s the status of your book tour, which was supposed to begin this spring?
A | We had to cancel the tour because of COVID-19. There was absolutely no way I was getting on a plane 19 days in a row back in April. Right now, what we’re doing is trying to interact with as many students and teachers as possible through the virtual world. I can do a lot of chemistry experiments through Zoom and Skype. I just didn’t know that, so I learned something this summer, as well. The second fiction book comes out in September, but I don’t believe I’ll be back on the road until January 2021 with the release of the third fiction book in my “Kate the Chemist” series.
Q | In your UT office, there’s a sign that says “Steminist”—a portmanteau of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and feminist. Why are you a Steminist?
A | I am creating a STEM Army of women who network and promote other women in STEM. It’s important for me to use the slingshot method where you reach back to the girls behind you and you throw them above you and ahead of you. And then they throw somebody above them and in front of them. I talk about my friends, like Danni Washington, the first African-American woman to host an American science series, and I believe they do the same for me. I write my students the best letters of recommendation I possibly can. I am going to build my squad of “Steminists” and we are going to conquer the world. [A segment recorded before the pandemic at UT with Biberdorf and 60 other women in STEM creating “the largest thundercloud demonstration of all time” aired on Washington’s “Mission Unstoppable” show on CBS during the pandemic.]
Q | Where did you grow up and what were Little Kate’s interests?
A | I was born Kate Crawford in Portage, Michigan near Kalamazoo. I was a tomboy. I got into trouble. I liked to push the limits. My parents laugh because in every picture there’s always a Band-Aid on my knee. My mom was awesome. She let me mix shampoo and conditioner and everything in this big green bowl. I’ve always been scientist-like.
Q | How did your upbringing cultivate your interest in science.
A | I’ve always had a really hard time with people telling me ‘no,’ which is the best way to make me do something. I think that attitude has worked really well in this field because when someone comes in—perhaps a male—and tries to tell me I can’t do something because of the way I look or the way I dress or because I’m bubbly, I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.
Q | Why did you decide to pursue a career in science?
A | My sophomore year of high school I had a chemistry teacher, Mrs. Kelli Palsrok, and she was incredible. She would run around the classroom. She was super-energetic. I just fell in love with chemistry in her classroom and since I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a chemist. I credit her with giving me enough confidence in the material—enough strength to be a woman in STEM—so that when I interacted with negativity, I was able to brush it off my shoulder and plow ahead.
Q | Tell me more about your academic journey.
A | I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I have a bachelor’s degree in both chemistry and German. I took German growing up and my dad speaks German, so it was a way to talk to him where my mom didn’t know what we were saying. The German degree has helped because there are a lot of chemistry papers that are in German. With chemistry, you’re limited with a bachelor’s because you can’t be a professor and you usually can’t run a lab in industry. I needed Ph.D. behind my name, so I applied for graduate school at UT. In graduate school, I started teaching. By the time I graduated in spring 2014, I had 15 semesters of TA [teaching assistant] experience, including summers. When a position opened up here at UT right after I graduated, I fought for it because I knew I could do it. They’ve been really supportive of my Kate the Chemist career.
Q | When did you start science entertainment?
A | In fall 2014, I was teaching two classes of the same lecture. I went to my department chair because I was bored and asked for an extra project. The person who was leading our public demonstrations program had to take a leave of absence, so I was right there to step in. I demanded an outreach program, so that’s how “Fun with Chemistry” was born. I would go to local Austin schools and perform 30-minute shows trying to get kids to see that science was fun and that you don’t have to be a dork to be a scientist. You can just like fire and dry ice and liquid nitrogen and being able to explain what’s going on around you in the everyday world. The deal at first was two outreach presentations per semester, but teachers started talking and the requests started coming in and that first year I interacted with 20,000 students. The point is to get them excited and have fun. It’s demo, demo, demo, excitement, laughter, explosion, boom, boom, boom—just sensory overload!
Q | When did your shows expand in Austin?
A | In fall 2014, one of my colleagues asked if I could go on the “We Are Austin” local CBS show that comes on after the morning news. He was promoting a lecture and asked if I could bring something “jazzy” to make it fun. Classic tenured professor. I went. I didn’t even have a microphone on. I was just handing him some gear. A woman asked if I did anything for Halloween and I lunged for that opportunity because that’s my favorite holiday. I can make a pumpkin vomit or explode! Then it was a Thanksgiving show and New Year’s.
Q | When was your breakout moment for a national platform?
A | Actually, it was an interview with Austin Woman magazine. This guy got a great shot of me breathing fire. They labeled the July 2017 article: ‘The Next Bill Nye.’ My current manager used to work with Bill Nye and he was looking for somebody else. He literally started Googling “The Next Bill Nye” and that story popped up. He called me a lot. He emailed me a lot. Finally, I was like: ‘You seem real. Let’s try it.’ I went out to Los Angeles. I got a production company. I got an agency. The agents and the managers hustled for me and turned “Kate the Chemist” into a brand. I stepped back from “Fun with Chemistry” because it was confusing people and a colleague took that over. Now, whenever I do anything, I perform under “Kate the Chemist.”
Q | What challenges do you face communicating science on TV?
A | On the “Today” show, I have to do a one-sentence explanation. I can’t talk about the first law of thermodynamics in a sentence and I need to make it something where the morning viewer can actually listen to the science. For most of the people watching, it’s perfect. For the small percentage who have a background in science, they’re like, ‘Wait a minute. There’s more to it.’ It’s been really fun to try to find the happy medium between pleasing my colleagues but also staying true to my authentic self and promoting science.
Q | How do you balance the challenges of teaching in academia and on public platforms.
A | I don’t make that much at UT because I just teach and I’m non-tenure track. I’m not going the research route. I don’t want to sit behind a hood in a lab all day long. I teach up to 1,000 students each semester. I get them ready for their upper-division courses. I can feel the moment when a B student believes they can be an A student and a barrier is removed. I want the freshmen who don’t even know how to do laundry. Those are my people. I get to help them become adults. I end every class with: Have a great week, take care of yourself and drink water. They’re dehydrated, they’re not sleeping, they’re not eating vegetables and I take it upon myself to remind them that they are human. They are going to make mistakes. But, by the time they show up in September and leave in May, they’re going to be good students and good citizens.
Q | How do your colleagues and others in academia react to you?
A | It took a little bit of time to get people used to me because I’m a different version of a scientist. There have been some male scientists who don’t really love what I do. There have also been some older women who don’t like what I do. I have a really cool support system, but it took a second. Sometimes they think I cheapen the science.
Q | What other challenges have you faced in crafting your career?
A | I think it’s important to have open and honest discussions with women who are new professionals about things that can happen. I can’t tell you the number of times men have touched my legs under the table, moreso in grad school when the position of power was real. My colleagues now shut down stuff. Women have to move forward without their careers being negatively affected.
Q | What do you say to people who feel overwhelmed by science—who feel they have already failed or those who don’t think they can do it?
A | Anybody can do it. If you’re asking questions, then you are a scientist. Scientists fail all the time. If you mix A and B and you don’t get C, you get F. Well, that’s how penicillin was made. For me, failure is just a part of being a scientist—it’s part of being in STEM. You’re just learning what doesn’t work so you’re one step closer to the actual product.
Q | Tell me about your collection of high heels, including the stilettos, tall boots and Christian Louboutins here in your office.
A | Those are what I teach in. I never wear flats. I never wear jeans. It’s always a pencil skirt, heels and a blouse. I love my heels. It’s a professional look and it fits my figure, but also because I look young. It’s important to me to represent women in STEM in a certain way. We are represented in jeans and clunky shoes that are comfortable and in lab coats with our hair up, so I just wanted to break that mold. I am a chemist. I also play Dungeons and Dragons, but I also get pedicures and facials. There is no defined box. Be who you want to be, do what you want to do and have fun.
Q | Where is Mrs. Kelli Palsrok now?
A | She’s in Michigan. We communicate via email. After she watched one of my TEDx talks online, she emailed me and told me she was part of my STEM Army. When I graduated with my Ph.D., I was broke but I got the money to send her a big bouquet of flowers because it was so important to me to tell her that she started me on this path and I was strong enough, because of her, to get the Ph.D. I just wanted to say thank you.
Kate Biberdorf, Ph.D.—also known as Kate the Chemist—was interviewed in Austin, Texas by TMC Pulse/TMC News assistant editor Cindy George and later by phone for an update after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.