On Fire to Inspire
A TV-savvy chemist seeks to interest kids — and girls, especially — in science.
How did Kate Biberdorf get her start as one of television's top pop scientists? Consider her favorite childhood pastime.
"I was always wanting to know why everything was the way it was, and I drove my parents insane with it," she recalls. "I kept asking 'Why did this happen?' or 'Why is this like that?' I wanted answers to everything, to the point where they'd start counting the number of times I'd ask, 'Why?' I believe therecord was 36 times in a six-minute car ride."
These days, Biberdorf does the explaining. As Kate the Chemist, she's becoming this generation's Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye the Science Guy, thanks to energetic appearances on Today, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Williams Wendy Williams Show and others.
Biberdorf isn't just trying to bring science to the masses — she's specifically hoping to reach women.
"We can use TV to change the world," says Biberdorf, who is a professor at the University of Texas and also tours the country with her science stage show. "If I do my job properly, I'll be empowering kids, and women in particular, to follow a science path."
Biberdorf herself was inspired by a female scientist. After a year in a boring high school biology class, she enrolled in sophomore chemistry with low expectations. She was surprised to see "this woman running around class, lighting stuff on fire and being crazy. She talked about science in almost a poetic way and showed me how to be passionate about it."
And her recollections of Bill Nye, the Science Guy helped turn that enthusiasm into something bigger.
"They'd roll a TV into our classrooms when I was young," Biberdorf says. "Bill Nye made science fun. He could talk about climate change with scientists but also explain it clearly to kindergartners. That's why I see people like myself, Bill and Neil deGrasse Tyson as translators of science."
Attitude is a big part of that translation. Biberdorf's time on a TV talk show is limited, so she devises splashy segments with maximum visual appeal, whether she's convincing Colbert to breathe fire or showing how to fill her studio with a giant nitrogen gas cloud.
Her approach seems to be working. "Wendy loves having Kate visit," says Wendy Williams executive producer David Perler. "She is a smart, successful woman in what is typically a male-dominated field, and of course, she can make an explosion look fun."
Given Biberdorf's preference for flash, it's not surprising that she dreams of having her own show in Las Vegas, where "you can get a huge budget to demonstrate some huge explosions," she notes.
A TV series has been under discussion, but no matter what happens, she says, "I just want to be a good ambassador for science, to put it out there for the world to see and show that you can be into science and still be feminine."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 7, 2019
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