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The Next Bill Nye

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University of Texas chemistry professor Kate Biberdorf is exciting students with her explosive science presentations.

By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Dustin Meyer

In Kate Biberdorf’s office at the University of Texas, a shelf lined with rows of brightly colored, shiny stiletto heels sit prominently next to her desk.

“That’s my little shoe shrine where I keep all my teaching heels,” Biberdorf says, motioning to the collection.

Biberdorf, known as Dr. B to her undergraduate students, dons her trademark footwear during her introductory chemistry classes at UT, which often involve explosive demonstrations fueled, in part, by Biberdorf’s own insuppressible energy. Beyond her classroom, she sparks interest in the sciences for students throughout Austin with her UT outreach program, Fun With Chemistry, as well as through her frequent dynamic science segments on various news channels.

As for the heels, Biberdorf says she wants to positively represent women in the sciences while promoting STEM education throughout the city.

She cites shows like The Big Bang Theory, on which female scientists are portrayed as frumpy and antisocial, as fuel for her efforts.

“It’s infuriating to me because my girlfriends in the world that are scientists are beautiful. They’re stunning. They’re fit. They’re well-rounded ladies,” Biberdorf says. “They’re not these clunky things in cardigans. I’ve never worn a cardigan in my life.”

As for teaching, Biberdorf says she never planned to be a professor until she started interacting with students as a teaching assistant during her graduate program in inorganic chemistry at UT.

“I really started to feel the benefit of getting someone excited about chemistry, but more importantly, just empowering the students,” Biberdorf says. “There’s just something so beautiful about a human who is convinced that they can’t do science or chemistry or a specific problem, and then they do it, and then they do a harder one. They’re like, ‘Wait, I can do this.’ I love being a part of that.”

By fighting tooth and nail for a teaching position at UT after earning her Ph.D. in 2014, she took on her current role as an introductory chemistry lecturer to thousands of students each year who are just starting their college careers. Biberdorf acts as equal parts bandleader and professional motivator to her huge chemistry classes of as many as 500 students.

Each of her lectures begins with music blasting while students enter the classroom. Biberdorf then shuts off the song, grabs their attention and tells some silly, embarrassing personal story, like the time she accidentally joined a triathlon while on a bike ride and tried to win. The conversation then makes a lightning-bolt leap into chemistry.

“I try to start the class like, ‘OK, we’re just here. We’re chilling,’ ” Biberdorf explains. “I’m like, ‘How are you? How are you? How are you?’ OK, chemistry, let’s go. We’re diving into it.”

As a teacher, which enters into the territory of performer in Biberdorf’s giant classes and outreach presentations, she pulls from her past life as a fitness instructor.

“I had to connect with someone and convince them to do a plank for a minute. That’s not going to happen if they don’t like you and they’re not interested,” Biberdorf says. “You have to find a way to get around that, and for me, it was always through joy and happiness and just distraction. I really think I bring that to the classroom, where I’m running around and marching and I refuse to do anything boring.”

She also dances, entices students with candy to answer questions and promotes healthy living for her many freshman students, who Biberdorf says are “learning chemistry and laundry at the same time.” She plans to do the worm in the classroom sometime this fall semester.

“I’ve got a big system in place to try and make sure that students are engaged,” Biberdorf says or her unconventional antics. “I really give a s–t about my students. I absolutely care about them.”

Biberdorf’s love for explosive chemistry demonstrations led her to become the director of demonstrations and outreach for UT’s chemistry department soon after she began teaching at the university.

“Within three months, I came in and said, ‘I’m bored. I’ve got all this extra time. I’ve got to have some other project,’ ” Biberdorf remembers of taking over the outreach program, a move that reflects her seemingly endless enthusiasm for science.

She grew the program to include Fun With Chemistry presentations at local elementary, middle and high schools.

Biberdorf says the outreach job, which involves blowing up pumpkins and filling her mouth with cornstarch to blow fire, is a perfect fit.

“I’ve always loved being messy and dirty. I’ve always been a little tomboy who loves playing in the dirt. My knees always have Band-Aids on them, including today,” Biberdorf says, motioning to her skinny-jean-covered legs. “It’s just part of who I am, so I think the explosiveness of chemistry really drew me to it. You just blow stuff up. How could you not love that?”

With the help of her assistant, Eric Wigdahl, Biberdorf performs school-assembly-style science demonstrations at elementary and middle schools, as well as more in-depth classroom demonstrations at high schools. Her repertoire of topics includes combustion, environmental science and ooey gooey. (Hint: There’s slime involved) The shows often end with Biberdorf yelling, “Do you like science?!” to an auditorium full of kids, after which she dumps a vat of hot water into a bucket of liquid nitrogen, creating the epic “thunder cloud” that lingers in the room.

“Laughter, smiles, big eyes, jaw dropping. … The ‘What?!’ is my favorite,” Biberdorf says, recalling students’ reactions. In her Fun With Chemistry demonstrations, she says her goal is to give kids a positive, memorable impression of science, hence the dramatic grand finales.

“They always remember running through the cloud because it’s awesome,” Biberdorf says. “For stuff like that, no matter what, even if they have no idea what you did, they’ll know that one time, this weird, crazy lady did something fun with science and they’ll remember liking it. And that’s good.”

In the past two years, the program has grown to reach more than 20,000 students each year, which means presenting multiple times a week for Biberdorf. Her wacky chemistry demonstrations have gotten so popular that the department now uses a random lottery system to choose which schools Biberdorf will visit.

All Fun With Chemistry presentations are supported by funding from the UT chemistry department and are completely free to the schools. This allows Biberdorf to frequently visit Austin’s lower-income districts, where she says students respond most enthusiastically to her science demos.

“Personally, working with underprivileged kids is just where my heart is at, specifically groups that are underrepresented in the collegiate area or in professional growth in STEM,” she says. “Most of these kids have literally never seen liquid nitrogen before, maybe even not seen dry ice. So, when I show up and I’m doing all these crazy things, their minds are blown.”

Students’ emotional responses, rather than them remembering each chemistry fact, is key to Biberdorf’s theatrical approach to Fun With Chemistry.

“If you have an emotional response to something, you’re more likely to remember it, so that’s my entire philosophy with teaching,” Biberdorf says. “If you see that this is cool and you can react to that and be a little bit engaged, just a tiny bit, then you’re much more likely to actually remember it. My entire goal is to excite then teach.”

Biberdorf’s eye-catching presentations have also landed her recurring monthly segments on morning news shows, including KEYE’s We Are Austin, KXAN’s Studio512 and Morning Dose on CW33. On air, Biberdorf performs live chemistry demonstrations with built-in mini science lessons for at-home audiences of all ages.

Looking back on her career, she says her more conventionally feminine appearance, which has made her more likely to be on TV today, caused many of her peers in graduate school to assume she was stupid. For Biberdorf, this stigma simply reflects the frustrating hurdles women in the sciences have to deal with.

“When I was actually in the academic world trying to prove myself, it was incredibly challenging,” she says. “Because I’ve made a name for myself now, it’s OK, and I’ve been able to reap the benefits of being feminine. But this is who I am. I didn’t ask to look this way; this is completely natural. I’m going to be myself, and I refuse to knock myself down a level because of the way you perceive me.”

Her passion for empowering young girls through STEM education led her to work with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, which is dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves.

See behind the scenes footage from the photoshoot with Dr. B below!

 

“The organization’s mission is just to show that women have brains and we’re not just here wearing dresses,” Biberdorf says of the Austin-based organization.

While running her Fun With Chemistry day camps, Biberdorf still encounters parents who won’t enroll their daughters because they “want their daughters to be in stereotypical feminine roles, which is frustrating,” Biberdorf says. By publicly promoting for women in the sciences, she hopes to fight that cultural stigma.

Biberdorf also advocates for nuclear power and fighting global warming. She attended the March for Science in Washington D.C., this year, representing Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and later spoke on the organization’s panel highlighting climate change.

“I want to talk about climate change because it is absolutely so offensive, in my opinion, that the [U.S. government] administration is even trying to put doubt on that,” Biberdorf says. “They clearly have no background in science. If you look at the data and say that you don’t believe in it, what we as a scientific community know is that you can’t interpret data. It doesn’t mean that you’re right. That’s one thing that’s just a hot button for me because I cannot stand the way the administration is representing science.”

 

Biberdorf says she finds a positive outlook for the future of science in her UT students. During their two semesters of introductory chemistry with Biberdorf, she teaches them to combat misinformation by properly understanding scientific sources.

“I think that my goal in my classroom is to teach my students how to interpret data, how to read something and identify whether or not it’s a good source, and then they can go out into the world and spread that information,” she says. “That’s the only way you can beat it. I’m never going to talk to Trump. But maybe I could convince an 18-year-old that carbon dioxide is not the best for our environment.”

When speaking about her chemistry students, Biberdorf radiates hope and enthusiasm for their futures. Every day in lecture, she reminds her class to drink water, a health-conscious catchphrase turned hashtag on Biberdorf’s Fun With Chemistry Instagram. On the final day of class, she gives each of her students a water bottle.

Tied to the bottle is a tag inscribed with Biberdorf’s personal motto, adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, never ever give up.”

“Every time at the end of the semester, I beg my students to go out into the world, be more successful than me and then come back and rub it in my face,” Biberdorf says. “That’s my dream, that they go out and become president or win a Nobel Prize, that they’re just bigger and better than everything I’ve ever done, and that they have the skills to do good in the world.”

Last year, Biberdorf performed three chemistry shows in Los Angeles with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls to raise money for muscular dystrophy. In the performances, she saw a glimpse of her biggest dream: to have a chemistry-themed show in Las Vegas.

“The thought of that—with huge fire shooting up behind me—that would be so fun,” Biberdorf muses.

Though she says there would have to be a pretty big cultural shift for people to be willing to pay for a Celine Dion-sized science show in Las Vegas, Biberdorf does hope to get a Fun With Chemistry program up and running in every major Texas university in the next five years.

For now, Biberdorf says she’s grateful to get to interact with so many kids as an advocate for STEM.

Five Unconventional Ways to Engage With Chemistry in Austin

Austin Woman asked Kate Biberdorf for her top picks for unexpected chemistry exploration in the city. Her adventurous ideas, just like her science demonstrations, provide fun options for scientists of all ages.

“Go to Spun Ice Cream to watch the production of liquid-nitrogen ice cream. I highly recommend the coconut caramel flavor!”

“Take a road trip to the Hill Country Science Mill to check out their new {Fossil Dig} exhibit. Then go inside to enjoy the A.C. in their Chemical Reactions section.”

“Visit Sephora for a beauty class or Make It Sweet for a cooking class. I love taking a local class and learning new things! Food chemistry is one of my current obsessions.”

“Take a science walk around Town Lake. If your child finds a plant or an animal to be interesting, Google it and see what you can learn about it. It is a perfect way to introduce the word ‘photosynthesis’ to young children.”

“Adventurous Austinites should visit iFly to learn more about gravity and wind. This one is still on my bucket list!”

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