Kate the Chemist

Photo courtesy of Dr. Kate Biberdorf and Glenn Schwartz

Kate the Chemist ignites a series of colorful explosions of brilliant red, bright yellow, and vivid green on the Stephen Colbert TV show. The half dozen balloons filled with hydrogen gas and fireworks chemicals made a rainbow of fireballs. “Now, let’s do something exciting!” says the self-described pyromaniac. She then spews a mouthful of cornstarch at a blowtorch to produce a fiery blaze. “Is this going to be dangerous?” Stephen asks. “Yes, that’s why you’re wearing protective gear,” deadpans Kate.

Kate Biberdorf’s website lists her roles in life as “chemist, science entertainer, and professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, Austin.” “When I’m happiest is when I’m onstage sharing what I love,” she tells Kenneth Chang of the New York Times.

And that’s the way Kate, with a Ph.D. in chemistry from UT, thinks of herself. Her passion is making science exciting for students, especially young women. Kate cites the research showing that young women decide if they can do science at a very early age, before puberty. We need to get into middle schools and elementary schools and show young women that they can be feminine and pretty and still love science and blowing things up, Kate tells Karlie Kloss on a Today Show interview. She is quick to credit her mom for encouraging her to experiment at home as a young girl. But her life-defining experience with her high school chemistry teacher, a dynamic woman herself, set Kate on her course to earn a doctorate in inorganic chemistry and to teach. 

Kate the Chemist is a dynamic performer and creates excitement wherever she goes. “Kate is extroverted to an extreme that is rarely found in scientists,” says David Vanden Bout, an associate dean of the University of Texas chemistry department to the Wall Street Journal. “It’s obvious that she draws energy from that interaction with people.”

Some of her colleagues heartily support her work, bringing science and excitement to people. Others “hate that I give a one-sentence explanation instead of the 75-minute lecture” in her popular appearances, she tells Don Steinberg of the Wall Street Journal. But that’s not how I’d explain it in my college classes, she quickly adds. “You have to know your audience.”

Dr. Biberdorf has also endured some disrespect and unwanted advances from some colleagues in the male-dominated field of chemistry. “Because of the way I look and the way I dress—when I teach, I wear heels and pencil skirts—I am automatically judged,” says the former fitness instructor. Dr. Biberdorf acts more restrained and academic around older, male chemists, especially at the very beginning of meetings.

Kate began her academic career at UT in the normal way, but soon realized that she needed to make science fun and interesting for students in a way that normal lecture classes could not. And she wanted to make bigger explosions. She asked to move to a full-time teaching role and started a school outreach program. Her UT bosses thought she’d make a couple of school visits a semester; Kate’s visits quickly climbed to over 100 a year. Once she got on TV, she found the stage she wanted.

Then her big break came when she and a colleague appeared for a short science spot on the local Austin TV channel. The producer asked if they could come back and do something science-related for Halloween. Kate leapt at the opportunity to do a Halloween science special. “We thought, OK, she’s a professor so she’ll be a little boring, but she can fill three minutes.” Kate’s vomiting pumpkin demo got such raves that the show booked her for monthly appearances.

Besides appearing on the Colbert show, she’s also been on the Today Show making thunderclouds with liquid nitrogen and hot water. “Throw the hot water as hard as you can into the liquid nitrogen,” she tells the Today hosts. On the Kelly Clarkson show, Kate explains to Kelly and a guest teacher how to make colorful snake bubbles. Clarkson and her guest cannot produce the colorful bubbles that Kate does. Then Clarkson laments that she’s not a good scientist. Of course you are, soothes Kate. You just have your procedure imperfect. And she rapidly diagnosed the problem as the wrong piece of equipment.

Kate is producing her own TV science show and joining the ranks of Bill Nye the Science Guy and Don Herbert’s classic Mr. Wizard series. I’m betting that Kate’s show will be super successful since she combines her passion for science with an irrepressible enthusiastic personality and her deep knowledge of science. And then there are the colorful explosions.

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