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Mission Moments: Kate Biberdorf

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Like the explosive chemical reactions in her “Chemistry Circus” demonstrations, Dr. Kate Biberdorf is a force to be reckoned with. Dressed in goggles and a blue fire-retardant lab coat, she’s constantly moving around in a blur from one experiment to the next, showing students the wonders of science. Whether they’re making freeze-dried ice cream pellets or creating helium, all of the high school students in Biberdorf’s Chembridge class are fully immersed in their lessons. The goal, she says, is to ignite their passion for science and show them how they can change the world with new creations and discoveries.

We put on our best racing shoes to catch up with Biberdorf to learn about her love of chemistry and why she’s focused on showing her Chembridge students that science is fun and exciting.

What do you enjoy most about teaching this age group? 

What’s fun about this new generation is that students seem to be less intimidated by science, and I think it’s because there’s a lot of amazing women out there trying to break the “nerdy guy” stereotype and showing us that you can be just a normal girl who wants to blow something up!

This is an exciting time now that kids are getting interested in science, but we still have a long way to go and there’s a lot of people we keep losing along the way, so we have to keep fighting for it and showing these kids that science is cool and exciting.

What goes on in your Chemistry Circus class?  

Chemistry Circus is a 30- to 45-minute period when I talk about one subject, such as combustion or physical versus chemical change, and try to show the class how exciting science is through many different types of experiments. I personally like to do something with dry ice or liquid nitrogen, then I end with fire—I have to end with fire!

What sparked your love affair with science?

Since I was 15 years old I knew I wanted to do something with chemistry. I had a fantastic high school teacher back in Michigan and she did everything she could to make chemistry the most exciting subject. She was constantly lighting ethanol on fire and physically running around the classroom trying to help us see what was so cool about chemistry.

In my mind, she was always way better than me. Since she taught high school, I decided to shoot higher and teach college students. So hopefully my students will be way better than me one day. They’ll be the presidents, the Nobel Prize winners and Supreme Court justices. I just want for them to come back to me and say, “Ha-ha! I’m better than you!” That’s the goal – that’s the dream!

Inquiring minds need to know—where do you get all this energy? 

Everybody asks me that all the time! I don’t drink any coffee; I’m a Diet Coke fan. But I also work out all the time. I used to be a fitness instructor back in grad school. Being active and healthy is very important to me. I end every single class by saying, “Have a great week. Take care of yourself—and drink water!”

Anything else you’d like to add? 

One of my most favorite things I get to do here is teaching an outreach class funded by the Department of Chemistry called “Fun with Chemistry.” I get to go out to local Austin schools and showcase all the exciting and fun aspects of science. We ultimately want these students to pursue a STEM field and maybe even come to UT to study chemistry or physics—I’m not biased. Just come here and learn how to make the world a better place!

About Chembridge: Housed within the Longhorn Center for School Partnerships and the Department of Chemistry, Chembridge is a college-readiness program that aims to boost academic success for underserved students in high schools across Texas. Many of these aspiring scientists will be the first in their families to attend college. Read more about it here.