"I think I’ve always been a scientist," says Kate Biberdorf, "but I just didn’t know it."
The University of Texas chemistry professor, who now is better known as Kate the Chemist, was the kid who dug in the dirt.
"In every picture, I had Band-Aids on my knees," she says.
On Tuesday, Biberdorf, who has made a name for herself doing chemistry demonstrations on national TV, launches two new books: one is a book of experiments for kids and another is a chapter book series featuring a 10-year-old version of Kate the Chemist.
Biberdorf’s mom, she says, was wonderful about giving her and her younger sister a big bowl and letting them make concoctions out of whatever they could find, such as bath salts and Vicks VapoRub. She and her sister regularly played with another set of sisters just making things in a big green bowl and seeing what would happen.
Biberdorf’s brother is nine years older and wasn’t in on the big green bowl magic.
Growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., Biberdorf, 33, doesn’t remember falling in love with science until her sophomore year of high school.
"I had an incredible chemistry teacher that made science come alive," she says.
That’s when she learned that she enjoys "blowing (expletive) up," she says.
After getting her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, Biberdorf landed at UT for graduate school. When a position opened up to teach at UT, she took it.
"To UT’s credit, they really want a diverse faculty," she says.
Biberdorf has become known for her chemistry demonstrations, first making her TV debut on a "We Are Austin" segment in October 2014, then nationally on shows like "The Today Show" and "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." You can find her demonstrations on YouTube as well as on her website, katethechemist.com. Do not try them at home, though.
For home experiments, Biberdorf offers her new "The Big Book of Experiments," 25 experiments kids can do safely. The book includes making a bubble snake out of a plastic bottle, dish towel and dish soap, and making puffy slime out of glue, shaving cream, baking soda and saline solution. Each experiment includes questions to ask during the experiment as well as an explanation of how it works.
To get kids excited about being young scientists, she’s launching the first of her new series of chapter books, "Kate the Chemist: Dragons vs. Unicorns." It is about a fictionalized fifth grade Kate who is very sassy and into science. Their first experiment in their after-school chemistry club is blowing fire out of their mouths using cornstarch, something the real Kate the Chemist loves to do for kids.
"For me, I love to breathe fire," she says. "My heart races every time. The crowd’s reaction is immeasurable. They ask me to do it again."
The cool thing is it’s something the crowd can feel — the heat from the flames shooting out of her mouth.
Each chapter of the "Kate the Chemist" books has real science and vocabulary embedded into the drama of being a smart fifth-grade girl.
Biberdorf has learned a lot along the way. "We have made mistakes," she says. "Science is not always perfect."
One memorable mistake happened when she didn’t protect her arm fully and her arm hair burned.
She says that taught her that it didn’t matter what the picture looks like, safety had to come first. Now she does experiments over and over again until she’s comfortable putting them on TV or doing them in front of an audience.
While she now, with the right precautions, has no problem setting her arm on fire, there’s one demonstration that scares her. It involves trapping gas inside a PVC pipe and then shooting a Nerf ball up. "It’s very loud," she says. "You’re essentially making a small bomb."
No, thank you.
Biberdorf does demonstrations for TV audiences as well as for 2,100 high schoolers or 500 college freshmen or 30 elementary school students.
What changes is the scale of the experiment, and the way she talks about the science.
She has to shoot one very large ball of fire out of her mouth for all 2,100 high schoolers to see it. She says she tries to use emotional memory to get an emotional response, like the heat of the fire. She wants to get their attention and have them asking questions while she explains what is happening at a molecular level.
She also loves to talk to kids and find out what kind of goop they like to make. "If you make it fun, make it interesting, you usually give the kids a reason to learn with you," she says.
Today Biberdorf teaches general chemistry I and II at UT with up to 500 students in a class. "That’s kind of a challenge," she says, "but it’s so fun to teach the 8 a.m. class and get people excited about coming to class."
The majority are freshman science or premed majors, but there are some engineers and other majors in there, too.
"They’re still learning how to be humans," she says.
She teaches Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, before the coronavirus pandemic, she would get on a plane to do school and public appearances Fridays through Mondays. She’s been able to do a lot of writing of these books on a plane.
For her college students, she’s still the "weird professor," she says. "I don’t think that is ever going to change."
Yet, she does share stories of her personal life to humanize herself.
"The more they put me on a pedestal, the harder it is to learn from me," she says. "I'm just this dork in heels who loves chemistry."
For Biberdorf, it’s important to represent women in science. She’ll wear a dress and heels to teach in, and then big boots, skinny jeans and a lab coat to blow things up.
Biberdorf has tried to highlight the role her fellow female colleagues are playing in science by creating a STEM army of women. She wants to get even more women out there in science careers as well as teaching science at a university level.
"There’s a lot of women doing what I’m doing," she says. "We’re all working together. We’re not competing with each other."
That translates to exciting the next generation of female scientists. She knows that one wrong answer in sixth or seventh grade science class can make a girl feel like she can’t do science or math, which is why she hopes the books will encourage girls, and boys, too, to keep asking the questions and feel cool about loving science.
One way that Biberdorf appreciates science when she’s away from the classroom and not traveling for school shows and public appearances is by baking.
Her next nonfiction book will be 25 edible experiments kids can do in the kitchen. A lot of gummy worms were made in the process.
"Cooking is chemistry; baking is chemistry," she says. Her two loves, together.
Her husband, Josh, now knows that it’s not unusual to find a big bowl of sand with food coloring in it in their kitchen.
He’s also a chemist, but now works doing coding. They met in graduate school, and while she’s an extrovert, he’s more of an introvert, she says.
It’s not complete chaos in their kitchen, even while experimenting for a book. She calls herself a neat freak and will always clean up after herself.
She and her husband have two dogs and a cat. The dogs are sweet, she says; the cat, not so much. Unlike fire, Kitty or Cat (yep, that’s her name) is unpredictable. "One of these days she’s going to be sitting on my jugular," Biberdorf says. She also has a niece she likes to do dry ice experiments with.
For parents looking to turn this time of coronavirus (and beyond) into some fun at-home science, Biberdorf recommends going on a science walk and letting your child lead. Ask questions and learn together, she says.
Make science cool.