Dr. Kate Biberdorf has blown up more than her fair share of stuff, and she prefers to do it while wearing one of her favorite pairs of heels. Whether on a stage or at the front of a classroom, Kate could not be more enthusiastic about getting people excited about chemistry. She loves her job. But her journey from Kate the kid to “Kate the Chemist” had more than a few moments of doubt. At one point, she even found herself sitting in an interview thinking to herself, “Please, don’t offer me this job.” But once she started to see the difference between what she was good at and what she loved to do, Kate learned to fight for every opportunity to do the things she actually loved.
As a kid, Kate had a lot of questions. Her parents always encouraged her to explore the world around her. But it wasn’t until high school chemistry that Kate found something that excited her in the classroom as much as her time on the soccer field. She learned as much as she could at college and jumped at the opportunity to learn even more in graduate school. Kate thought that research – a lifetime of getting to ask questions – would suit her. But spending long days in the lab, Kate felt her excitement for the subject start to fade. She got worried. Why was she getting a Ph.D.? She was good at her work, and she mustered her enthusiasm for a job interview. But the whole thing felt like she was faking it. Kate said that the whole time her head was filled with the thought, “Please, don’t offer me this job.”
But just as Kate could feel time in the lab starting to make her chemistry spark go out, she noticed that other things would make it flame back up again.
She especially felt her excitement perk up while she was teaching. Each semester she would get to introduce new sets of students to parts of chemistry, and every time they started to get excited, she would get excited all over again.
But getting people excited about chemistry isn’t always easy. Some students think it is too hard, too boring, or just not important. Kate had to get creative. She looked back on her high school chemistry teacher with new appreciation. That teacher didn’t just have to share excitement with Kate’s class but with five different classes every day! Kate also thought about her time as an athlete and as a fitness instructor.
Convincing people to run laps and do sit-ups is hard. Getting them to feel good and cheer at the end of practice is even harder. But if she could do it for athletics, she could do it for chemistry. By the time
Kate was ready to graduate, she was in love with teaching. And she was good at it.
Her school, the University of Texas at Austin, posted a job for someone to teach introductory chemistry – huge classes with 500 students at a time. Kate wanted it. Even though the salary was one-third of the other job she had interviewed for, she really wanted it.
But she knew the school preferred to hire instructors from other colleges to improve the range of expertise available to its students. Kate said she didn’t just know she wanted it, “I swear I knew that position was for me.”
She pulled the best evidence from her 15 semesters of teaching and made her case. When it came down to a chance to show that she could do it, Kate said, “I begged.” She got the job, and now she is far more than just a Professor of Instruction.
Her classes are in demand, she is the Director of Demonstrations and Outreach, she runs “Fun with Chemistry,” and she appears on shows like “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
She even dreams of one day having a Vegas show that could get anyone excited, at least for a little while, about chemistry.
Even with all of that success, Kate had moments of doubt. Kate tried to speak up at a conference about what it takes to get outreach programs into classrooms, but a man in the room cut her off. He gave his perspective, and then made a point to say that his expertise came from interacting with ~200 students per year. Kate felt like all of her work and success wasn’t going to matter, if someone like that would just cut her off. But then another woman in the room stood up and said, “Hey. Aren’t you that girl on TV who blows stuff up?” and gave Kate the chance to talk about her work – and her experience interacting with more than 20,000 students per year. Kate was thankful that other woman had taken the chance to stand up for Kate’s work, something Kate has vowed to do for herself since. Kate has found her place, letting students know that everyone who asks a question is a scientist at heart. And at this point, she isn’t worried that she is going down the wrong path. Her biggest fear? “That someone will talk to me and end up liking science less,” Kate said. Given what she can do, it doesn’t seem like Kate has much to be afraid of.
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