Fun With Chemistry

July 1, 2015 • by Marc Airhart

Kate Biberdorf combines the energy of a kickboxer with a passion for chemistry and a love of sharing science with the public

A woman in blue lab coat blows a puff of fire out of her mouth

Meet chemistry faculty member Kate Biberdorf, founder of the wildly popular outreach program Fun With Chemistry.


Marc Airhart: This is the Point of Discovery. I'm Marc Airhart.

Kate Bieberdorf: I would say the first 5 minutes is when I'm fighting. That's when I'm trying to get their attention – I try to talk about Harry Potter, I talk about cookies – I talk about anything they're interested in – if there are a bunch of rowdy boys – I immediately start talking about explosions and nuclear bombs, anything that's going to get their attention …

MA: That's Kate Bieberdorf, a chemistry lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. She's on a mission to get kids excited about chemistry.

KB: … but it's the first 5 minutes you have to own it and say let's do it, let's be smart, and let's have fun with it, but after the first explosion, their eyes are on me.

KB: Do you love science?

Kids: Yesss!

Kids: Woahh!!!!

MA: In this YouTube video, she's in front of a classroom in a powder blue lab coat and safety goggles. She's got a tub with liquid nitrogen – which is crazy cold – and then she picks up this bucket of hot water and just dumps it in.

KB: and then the liquid N absorbs the heat energy from the hot water and it goes from a liquid state to a gaseous state, but it's huge so if I dump it into a tub that's maybe 2 feet tall, my thundercloud could go maybe 15 or 20 feet in the air and then maybe 10 feet wide – it's just this huge cloud of nitrogen.

Kids: Woahh!!!

KB: That's always the crowd pleaser, everyone loves it – I swear that's why I became a chemist, I swear – it's so fun … I like to blow stuff up.

MA: Bieberdorf got her PhD in chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin just last spring and now teaches general chemistry at the university. Last fall, she created Fun With Chemistry as a way to show kids the magic and raw power of science. She visits schools every week. In less than a year, she's done demonstrations for over 12,000 students. But that's not all. She's setting her sights even higher.

KB: I would love to take it one step further. I have a silly dream, but I would love to be the next Bill Nye. … That's been my dream for a while, that's my secret dream – I've never really talked about that until I started doing the Fun With Chemistry program. ….

MA: The world needs more Bill Nye's.

KB: I think so. We need more Bill Nye's – we need a female Bill Nye – that's what we need – Kate Nye – I keep hearing Jill Nye.

MA: But not everyone believed in her. A few years ago she told her dream to another scientist – who happened to be a man – she asked me not to use his name or any identifying details.

KB: And I remember them [laughs] looking me in the eye after I told them that I wanted to be Bill Nye and just right in the eye saying it will be impossible – you aren't going to do this … And I mean -- I'll show you this – I wrote it down and this was years ago, "It is virtually impossible" – and I wrote it down and I taped it under my desk, after I cried of course – and I was like, I'm done with this. I'm over people looking me in the eye and judging me for who I am and what I look like and saying you can't do this for whatever reason – and it's taped in my own office now underneath my desk because I don't want people to see it – but it's my personal motivation.

MA: After we talked a while, I realized Kate Bieberdorf is a fighter. And I don't just mean that figuratively. She is literally a kickboxer.

KB: And so, I don't like being told no – I don't like thinking I can't do something. What? I can do that, just give me a year to figure it out. But no, there's nothing I can't do – in my brain, in my silly brain – there's nothing I can't do.

MA: Last fall she moved one step closer to her dream. A producer for a local Austin TV station invited her to come each month and bring her demonstrations to the small screen.

MA: For Halloween, she blew up a pumpkin.

MA: But she didn't just blow it to bits – she pre-cut the eyes and mouth, so just those bits went flying.

MA: Voila – a perfectly carved – and still glowing -- pumpkin.

MA: For Thanksgiving, she made snow.

MA: And this past spring, she made a ball of fire – with her breath.

MA: It turns out Bill Nye wasn't her only inspiration. Her high school chemistry teacher made the subject come alive for her.

KB: She was, I don't want to use the word insane, but that's what I think of – just energetic and just crazy, she would do all these weird things and it was contagious – everything she talked about – I was like, Tell me more. I ate it up. She was talking about redox chemistry, which is boring to be honest, but something about the way she talked about it was contagious and I wanted to know more about it. So since I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a chemist – easy -- so I've never steered from that path.

MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. We're on the web at Music for today's episode comes from Podington Bear. I'm Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening.