Kate the Chemist Lights COD on Fire

Professor and TV personality Kate Biberdorf spent two days at COD getting children and high school girls excited and confident about pursuing science.


Photo by Elizabeth Barbosa

Khadijah Rashid, Staff Writer

Families filled Belushi Performance Hall on Oct. 27 to watch Kate Biberdorf, also known as Kate the Chemist, make gummy worms, build a bubble snowman and breathe fire. Children in the crowd shouted answers to the questions Biberdorf asked as she kept them engaged and energetic through an hour of science experiments.

“This is my last stop on the tour, and it’s the only stop where they’re going to let me play with fire,” Biberdorf said. “Are you excited?” Her question was followed by cheers and applause.

First, Biberdorf introduced herself and her background. She told the audience about the 10th grade chemistry teacher whose passion and energy inspired 15-year-old Biberdorf to become a chemist. After earning her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and starting as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, Biberdorf was itching for more to do. With her boss, she designed an outreach program called Fun With Chemistry. 

“I would go out to local Austin schools and blow stuff up and try to get kids excited about science,” Biberdorf said.

This led to Biberdorf doing a monthly television segment, which then led to her getting picked up as “the next Bill Nye” and the birth of her brand, Kate the Chemist.

Photo by Elizabeth Barbosa

After her introduction, Biberdorf began her string of experiments and specified whether the audience should or should not try each experiment at home. Audience members had 30 seconds to turn to their neighbor after each experiment and decide whether they’d just witnessed a physical or chemical change.

After the show, kids lined up to ask Biberdorf questions on topics ranging from what her own favorite experiments are to advice on recreating the ones she conducted onstage at home. Outside the hall, audience members of all ages lined up to buy Biberdorf’s books and get them signed by her. 

Biberdorf aims to make science less intimidating for young learners by creating engaging, memorable experiences for them. Especially important to her is giving young girls the confidence to pursue education and careers in male-dominated science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. 

Biberdorf’s show was part of COD’s STEM Week, which continued on Friday with the Women in STEM Career Day. For this program, female students from select DuPage County high schools were invited to participate in a roster of STEM-related activities that included a presentation by Biberdorf. She tailored her presentation to a high school audience while still bringing her upbeat and enthusiastic energy to the room. 

“Every single place is different,” Biberdorf said in an interview after the presentation. 

She sat at a round table in the room the students had left empty as they moved on to their next activity.

“I was at a corporate event earlier in Nashville that had 20 to 30 people in the room,” she explained. “These were all women managers, so it’s a completely different talk than what I gave here. We have to talk about leadership in the workplace.”

From there, she went to Las Vegas where she did a 3,000-person show for an audience of adults who conduct corporate training. In every location and for every audience, Biberdorf carefully decided what to present and how to present it. In her presentation at COD, Biberdorf encouraged the students in the audience to support each other’s goals and make sure their peers’ voices are heard in educational and professional settings that are dominated by men.

“Today the main goal was to have these women and young girls leave thinking they can do whatever they want,” Biberdorf said. “I was trying to give all these girls confidence today. And I hope I did, just a little bit, so that every time their teachers say it, they’ve heard it from someone else, and hopefully they start to believe it.”

Biberdorf also shared that she believes girls of color need more role models in STEM fields. She says she, as a white woman, tries to champion her peers of color, specifically marine biologist Danni Washington, the first African-American woman to host a national science show.

Venessa Hardy is a teacher at Lisle High School who accompanied her students on Women in STEM Career Day. She was delighted to meet someone so passionate about helping girls in STEM and who could serve as a role model for her own daughters. 

“She’s wonderful,” Hardy said about Biberdorf. “She’s very dedicated to her craft.”

Biberdorf also shared her social media handles with her audience after both her show and her presentation. She encouraged them to reach out for anything she might be able to help them with. 

Biberdorf’s book, “The Big Book of Experiments,” started off as a PDF that she wrote and would send to people who asked for suggestions on chemistry experiments they could conduct in their school clubs and outreach programs. Biberdorf later met with a publisher who advised her to turn her step-by-step guide into a book.

Biberdorf also answered questions about graduate school and gender-related issues in STEM from the high schoolers and their teachers after her presentation.

“I was very grateful that the teachers were throwing me the harder questions and actually pushing me to be real with them,” Biberdorf said. “I loved the conversation that happened here.”

Photo by Elizabeth Barbosa

STEM Outreach Coordinator Sara Spaniol hopes to invite Biberdorf to COD again in the spring semester.

After a week of touring, Biberdorf was looking forward to going home and getting some rest. In the meantime, Biberdorf will continue her work improving the experiences of female STEM students at The University of Texas at Austin and getting kids excited about science. 

“Please keep encouraging all students and people around you to pursue science,” she said at the end of her show on Thursday. “And remember, anybody can be a scientist. You don’t have to be a dork or a nerd, you can just be a girl or a boy who likes explosions and fire!”