Firestarter

 

Meet the UT chemist who gets kids excited about science by blowing stuff up.

Firestarter

Whether she’s blowing up hydrogen balloons in college classrooms or playing the role of mad scientist for kindergarteners, Kate Biberdorf, or “Dr. B,” has made a name for herself as the energetic face of UT’s chemistry department. With dreams of her own show in Vegas, Biberdorf’s already got a regular segment performing live chemistry demos on CBS Austin’s “We Are Austin.”  She wants to challenge both the female scientist stereotype and the notion that people in STEM fields have less fun. Biberdorf, PhD ’14, spoke with the Alcalde about her chemistry outreach program, why she’s excited about this generation’s students, and becoming the next Bill Nye.

Describe your various roles at UT.

I’m a lecturer, so my main objective is to teach general chemistry, either for majors or non-majors. I started branching out and doing a chemistry demonstrations program, where I assist any lecturer or professor who wants to blow something up or even do something minor in their classrooms to illustrate a principle. Chemistry is very hard to visualize and certain students need that, so we do the demos to keep them awake. With that, I was able to ask the chemistry department to fund the Fun with Chemistry Outreach Program, which I started in the fall of 2014. I go to local schools and do demonstrations to show that science is fun. I blow things up and end with a big finale. I encourage them to come to UT and take chemistry with me and try to promote STEM education. I’m also the coordinator for Chembridge, a dual-credit program. In 25 different high schools across Texas, we try to show underrepresented students that they can make it in college.

Not many people get paid to blow things up in the name of science. What’s the biggest difference between teaching UT undergrads and K-12 students?

The most obvious thing is the depth of conversations. I always ask questions no matter who I’m teaching. I make them think about it and have them tell me what happened. With my college kids, I push as hard as I can. I want them to be presidents or Supreme Court justices; I want them to be better than me.

What’s the most rewarding part about working with kids?

When you work with a B student—any student who thinks they’re not the best or they can’t do this for whatever reason—you work with them long enough and eventually they say, “Holy crap, I can do this; I can get an A.” Yeah, everybody can do this! That’s the most rewarding thing to me. Chemistry seems daunting, but it’s just math in a different language.

What sparked your interest in science?

I had a phenomenal high school teacher back in Michigan. She would run around the classroom, light ethanol on fire, and she had such a passion for chemistry. It was my favorite course, and after that I knew I wanted to pursue chemistry and never looked back.

Did you always know you wanted to teach?

If you ask my parents, I told them I wanted to be a teacher in first grade. But the older I got, the more I steered away from it. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school with different tutoring opportunities. I even taught kickboxing classes. In graduate school I was a TA in a significant number of courses and I fell in love with it. The students here at UT are phenomenal. They’re so driven. The new students coming in really want to do good in the world.

What do you hope to achieve by bringing more attention to what you do with chemistry?

It’s twofold. There’s definitely a selfish component in that I would love to be the next Bill Nye. If The View is talking about science and they really need [an expert], I would love to be that face. I can understand the chemistry coming from the professors, but I can also easily translate it into layman’s terms. That’s why I’m a teacher. But realistically, I want to show that I’m a girl who was a varsity athlete, but I’m also a PhD chemist. You don’t have to fit into a certain mold. The girls on The Big Bang Theory drive me nuts because that’s not what a chemist looks like. We’re all normal people. You don’t have to wear cardigans; I wear heels and skirts all the time.

Where do you see yourself and Fun with Chemistry in 10 years?

I have a thousand different dreams, but my favorite one would be to have some kind of TV show that’s educational and fun. I don’t want to be the show that is put on in elementary school and all the kids [groan]. I want something where we can blow stuff up, with a Mythbusters-type appeal. I would also love to have a show in Las Vegas where we’re blowing stuff up with a huge budget, and we can really do things of scale and have great minds come together and build these fantastic exhibits. I don’t know if anyone would pay for that, but I would love to do it.

What’s one thing people should know about chemistry?

That chemicals are everything. So if you ever hear somebody tell you not to ingest a chemical or put a chemical in your mouth, that’s the craziest thing you could ever say. Water is a chemical. Food is comprised of chemicals. Chemicals are everything, and it’s this huge misconception and one of our biggest pet peeves as chemists. Everything is made of chemicals.

Photo by Anna Donlan

 

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