Kate the Chemist Says, "Anybody Can Be a Scientist"
The UT professor-turned-YouTube science star is on a mission to take over the world, and she's assembling an army
By Katherine McNevins, Fri., March 10, 2023
Dr. Kate Biberdorf, or as she’s more commonly known, Kate the Chemist, has been working diligently for years to break down stereotypes and barriers around science education, and offers entertainment in the same vein as Bill Nye the Science Guy or, for the old-timers, Donald “Mr. Wizard” Herbert.
In advance of Biberdorf’s South by Southwest appearance, we caught up with the associate professor of chemistry at UT-Austin for a conversation just before a busy few months of travel for the educator, who spreads her passion for science online and in person with a healthy presence on social media like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, and through classes at UT-Austin, where she teaches chemistry. Through the Fun With Chemistry outreach program, she stays plenty busy spreading a singular message for all of y’all: “Anybody can be a scientist.”
Chemistry is an intimidating subject with all its jargon and intricacies and those complicated models of molecules, and it’s often not pursued by young girls, who are commonly steered toward other fields. But the “STEMinist” said, “As a kid, I always wanted to know why,” and she found that “science was the answer.” Biberdorf shared that she was truly inspired by her high school chemistry teacher Kelli Palsrok, who lit a figurative fire under this educator who’s since been lighting literal fires on TV for demonstrations with the likes of Stephen Colbert, Kelly Clarkson, and Jenna Bush Hager in the name of science.
You’ve probably come across one of Biberdorf’s engaging videos over the years. She’s been a frequent guest on local and national news shows and has given science lessons to a bevy of daytime and nighttime TV hosts, illustrating the concept of combustion by breathing fire with cornstarch and a blowtorch, and demonstrating surface tension by creating “bubble snakes.” Recently she’s been using her TikTok platform to answer questions about the February Ohio train derailment and the chemical pollution issues it raised, emphasizing the importance of checking SDS (safety data sheets) information when doing your own research; oftentimes innocuous chemicals have names that sound like harmful ones. Everything around us is made of chemicals, and Biberdorf demystifies the difficult concepts and gives us the language to discuss them in a way that’s applicable to everyday issues.
Biberdorf related about a recent appearance in San Angelo: “I said something about how nonbinary students can be scientists, and someone came up to me later and said that they had never heard that.” She wants to emphasize that LGBTQ+ scientists are welcomed into the fold, and she’s committed to making opportunities for them. She has also been active with several local organizations, including STEM-focused nonprofit Girlstart, and spoke with enthusiasm about her work with the Boys and Girls Clubs, which she’s been involved with for several years, helping to raise funds and bring opportunities to kids interested in pursuing careers in STEM.
In addition to her online presence, Biberdorf is also the author of several books designed for children and adults. They include fun experiments anyone can do at home, including edible ones that teach about science through food. She’s also got a fiction series about a fifth-grade scientist, with stories that demonstrate how science concepts play into everyday life. Knowing that words break barriers, she said, “Just giving people the vocabulary to talk about science is so important.”
At SXSW, Biberdorf will be interviewed by Madeline Hollern from Austin Monthly as part of the 2050 track, which “focuses on long-range, big-picture thinking, with topics that range from nanotech breakthroughs and interplanetary expeditions to life-extension research and novel applications of scientific discoveries.” Biberdorf shared that she hopes to discuss the business of science education and how to get the message out that science is for everyone, and to inspire young people to “pursue a degree or career in STEM.” When asked about the possibility of seeing one of her famous experiments at the panel, Biberdorf laughed and explained that the Convention Center has some limitations. So, “maybe nothing with a blowtorch,” she said, but she still has plenty of experiments up her sleeve, so there’s still hope.
With all the education and outreach work Biberdorf does, we’re not sure when she has time to rest. But she shared an important goal of all this: “Build a little army and take over the world.” Inspiring a new generation as she was inspired as a teen means that maybe the next Kate the Chemist is waiting in the wings to take up her mantle.
Kate the Chemist at SXSW
How Dr. Biberdorf Became Kate the Chemist
Tue 14, 10am, Convention Center, ballroom EF
Booksigning: The Big Book of Experiments
Tue 14, 11:30am, Convention Center, Room 10C
Science Is For Everyone at SXSW
EarthGlow: An Astronaut’s Perspective
Tue 14, 11:30am, JW Marriott, Salon AB
"We should have sent poets." They did: Dr. Sian Proctor.
Reimagining Cities: Civic Engagement w/ Minecraft
Sun 12, 2:30pm, Fairmont, Manchester Ballroom EE
How your favorite building game is teaching civic planning.
Animal Influencers as a Way Out of Climate Fatigue
Sat 11, 4pm, Marriott Downtown, Waller Ballroom AB
Bats, octopuses, and VR may save the world.
Birds Tell Us: Inspiring Conservation Through Art
Mon 13, 10am, Convention Center, Room 9AB
If celebrities can be birdwatchers, why can't you?
Unexpected Urban Foraging w/ @Blackforager
Fri 10, 11:30am, Marriott Downtown, Waterloo Ballroom 3
Alexis Nikole Nelson is making everywhere your larder.