Kate Biberdorf donned a pair of safety goggles, put liquid nitrogen into a garbage can, and sealed it closed at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in 2018. Seconds later, the 1,500 ping pong balls inside the garbage can were sent skyward.
Her largest crowd previously had been around 1,000 people; on this day, 3,000 people watched in awe, many of them children who swarmed the stage and asked for her autograph.
“So, for an hour and a half, I sat there signing ping pong balls,” she laughs. “Which is really difficult to do if you’ve ever tried to sign a ping pong ball, by the way.” In that moment, she had a revelation.
Although Biberdorf had branded herself “Kate the Chemist” six months prior, she thinks her performer counterpart was really born at that demonstration. “I knew, ‘OK, I’m supposed to be doing this. I have a gift of science and a gift of communication. I love to perform, and people are responding to me. I’m not intimidated by big crowds,’” she recalls. “‘I could make a real career out of this.’”
Already a chemistry professor at The University of Texas at Austin, Biberdorf created the persona as a way of reaching new audiences and inspiring young minds to pursue STEM fields.
Biberdorf (née Crawford, B.S. ’08) has realized that potential in the past few years in a big way. While she continues to teach at UT, she has fully established Kate the Chemist as a science entertainer and bestselling author.
At the end of most weeks, after lecturing to her students at 8 a.m. and holding office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she’s at the airport going to a new city to breathe fire or make liquid nitrogen ice cream as the celebrity guest on a talk show. Sometimes, she joins Neil deGrasse Tyson to talk about how chemistry is all around us on his podcast StarTalk, or she’s hosting her own podcast on NPR, Seeking a Scientist.
“I try to balance it all by having two categories in my brain, one where I’m an academic and one where I’m Kate the Chemist,” she says.
Both personas were fostered by her early education in the Kalamazoo area and her chemistry studies at LSA, thanks to some dedicated instructors who believed in and inspired her—a gift that she is repaying to the world with every television demonstration about how to make smoke rings, every recipe for making “puffy slime,” every moment of wonder that she inspires in the next generation.
Biberdorf always considered herself a scientist. As a child, she was constantly asking “why?”; her parents actually counted the number of questions she would ask in the car during family vacations. She was a child who wanted to take things apart and put them back together to understand how they worked.
Biberdorf didn’t realize she was a chemist, however, until her sophomore year at Portage Central High School when she met Mrs. Kelli Palsrok. The vibrant, eccentric teacher would run around the classroom and light things on fire. Her energy was contagious, and Biberdorf realized all of the questions she had about the world could be answered with chemistry. How does a car work? Why did that liquid change color? How does temperature affect pressure?
“Once I started learning chemistry, I could find the answers to all my questions somehow. I look around and everything I see has chemistry in it. It’s all built on atoms and molecules and the interactions between them,” she explains. “It’s so fun. I love that chemistry can explain everything I’m looking at and answer every question I’ve ever had.”
When she was in high school, U-M was her dream school—although she wasn’t sure she would get accepted.
“I didn’t think highly enough of myself,” she says. “I applied all over the state because I wanted to stay in Michigan, but U-M was always my first choice.”
A large envelope with a maize and blue emblem arrived in her mailbox. With her family crowded around her, she opened what turned out to be an offer of admission. The room erupted.
The joy followed Biberdorf to campus as a first-year student, where she found her home in the chemistry building’s library. “I spent so much time there. I loved my chemistry courses, and the department really took care of me as well as other students,” she says.
She noticed, though, that the abundance of female science teachers she had in high school didn’t parallel her experience in higher education. Fortunately, there was one professor who inspired Biberdorf to stay in the field when she wondered if she was cut out to be a chemist.
Kathleen Nolta, an LSA chemistry professor, is one of the best instructors Biberdorf ever had. Nolta showed her how to be a successful female chemist in academia.
“Over my years of being a professor, the population of women in my introductory classes has been fantastic. I even have some classes that are mostly women, and women tend to do better in my classes, overall. But in the upper-level classes, there’s a shift that happens,” Nolta says. “I’ve never understood it.”
Nolta has also noticed that when working with middle and high school students, the female students tend to be more engaged and invested in the learning compared to their male counterparts.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a woman too, so they feel more comfortable answering questions in my class,” she says. “I had a female math teacher in high school that inspired me, and that’s the main reason I continued in education as long as I have. To be that source of inspiration for someone else really warms my heart.”
According to Biberdorf, young women are statistically more likely to feel discouraged about a career in STEM after answering a math or science question incorrectly. When she thinks about the impact she wants to make with Kate the Chemist, she remembers seeing the mental toll being a woman in STEM had on her classmates in graduate school.
“This question doesn’t often get asked. There’s a conversation around mental health and school that needs to be discussed more. I’m often extremely upbeat about chemistry, and I do love it. I’m glad I have my Ph.D. But it was the worst five years of my life,” she recalls.
When Biberdorf was in graduate school at UT, she was told that 10 percent of what she would do would ultimately be successful so she needed to be prepared to fail 90 percent of the time. The women in Biberdorf’s program often spent all day in labs, not eating or sleeping because of stress, which is especially concerning because of how vulnerable graduate students already are.
“They’re really hard on themselves,” she explains. “I wish we could lift them up and support them more. The jump from high school to college is a huge jump, but the one to graduate school is arguably even more difficult because you’re now competing with people who are the best in their field focusing on one specific topic. Having a support system is critical.”
Biberdorf’s support system included her two best friends she met at U-M. She remembers how having a tight-knit group to confide in and study with made all the difference in her establishing her career. In fact, Kate the Chemist’s first TV gig happened because a colleague invited her to go on We Are Austin with her to conduct a science demonstration.
Traversing the country, writing children’s books, visiting schools, and appearing on TV and radio shows has allowed Kate the Chemist to have an impact greater than she ever imagined. Her goal is to encourage communities of academics and students to work together to make the science classroom a more positive place.
“If your friend answers a question incorrectly, give them a quick, ‘good try’ or ‘oh, I thought that was the answer too’ to have their back. It can go such a long way and potentially even prevent someone from writing off a career in science,” she says. “Support each other. And if you know someone who’s interested in science, don’t make fun of them or let others make fun of them.”
Although her schedule can feel hectic, Biberdorf loves getting to host science conversations in communities or conducting experiments with liquid nitrogen and dry ice in schools with students who otherwise may not have the opportunity to see chemistry demonstrations or talk to a professor.
“If somebody asks me to come to Newton, Iowa, or Roswell, New Mexico, I just have to go. I’m going to go. It feels really worth my time, and studies show that showing up multiple times can make a big change. It motivates me to say yes over and over again,” she continues.
“I also just love playing with fire. That’s part of it too, of course.”
Likewise, Kate the Chemist thinks it’s important to show young people that you can be a Ph.D. scientist with a bubbly personality and a love for Louboutin shoes—that there’s no one way to be a scientist. And if people have negative feedback?
“Breathe fire all over it,” she laughs. “I’m really excited about this new generation. There are more women in STEM and they’re supporting each other, working together … It’s their time, and they’re feisty. I’m looking forward to watching their growth and having their back however I can.”
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