I Want Your Job: Mary Jane Conboy, Science Exhibit Designer
Space capsules, nature preserves, and the human body? All in a day's work.
Going to the Ontario Science Centre is a rite of passage for most GTA kids. Middle-school boys compete furiously on the rowing machines, trying to assess each other’s stamina; nearby babies try out their new walking skills on the rock-climbing wall as their parents watch over them. Mary Jane Conboy is the author of all these experiences: as the Director of Science Content and Design for the Ontario Science Centre, Conboy leads the team that designs and installs the Centre’s exhibition. She also develops content for other museums and organizations, and ensures that visiting exhibitions, such as “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” currently on loan from Chicago’s Field Museum, are scientifically accurate and fit the OSC’s mandate.
Originally from Ottawa, Conboy holds a PhD from the University of Guelph, where her thesis focused on groundwater contamination in Ontario and Zimbabwe. Before she began working at the Science Centre in 2010, she was the Executive Director of the Well Wise Resource Centre in Durham Region, which was opened in part as a response to the Walkerton E. Coli outbreak in 2000. “People were understanding that bacteria in your well was a problem, but there was limited understanding in how to resolve the problem and how to prevent future problems,” she says. “This centre had a classroom and displays, and it was set up for people to stop by and look around, ask questions, and learn more about caring for their well.”
Our interview with Conboy—whose son once described her work as “the coolest job on the planet”—is below.
Torontoist: How did you go from working on hydrogeology and wells to the Ontario Science Centre?
Mary Jane Conboy: Starting with my PhD work, I was connecting directly with the public. I would take their well water sample, do the testing and then communicate the results back to the owner. I had to learn very quickly how to translate my doctorate-level research into relevant terms and actions to the well owner so that they could take action to protect their health and the environment. I also had to put myself in their position, and be as sensitive as possible about how I delivered the message, but also as clear as possible so that there was no confusion. As I worked with farmers at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and with the rural public through Green Communities Canada, I needed to break down complex scientific content into direct and often visual examples to help people understand what was happening with their well, and how the land use at surface, as well as well construction and maintenance, can impact their water supply.
The move to the Ontario Science Centre stemmed from the work I did establishing the Well Wise centre and creatively translating complex messages into visually appealing displays and interactive demonstrations for all ages. I found this work very enjoyable, I did well at it, and it made me feel like I was empowering people because I was helping them understand pathways that would help improve their situation. A key consideration for me in moving to this position at the Ontario Science Centre was the potential to help more people understand our natural environment, and empower them to take action to improve the world we live in.
Walk us through the process of developing an exhibit: what’s the starting point or inspiration?
A number of the initial parameters about the project and its goals are provided by the Science Centre’s leaders. This is often a broad theme, some idea of budget, and timeline goals. Timelines can vary from a few months for a refresh or small custom build to 1.5 to two years for a major permanent exhibition.
Once these broad parameters are outlined, we need to figure out what would most interest our target audience. How do you convey really complex science in a way that is understood by a very wide range of people. How do you make sure it’s fun and has a “stickiness” to it that helps it lock into your memory? The team I work with is a mix of scientists and designers and we work very closely with our fabrication department. We think a lot about specific experiences: the content and the design of these experiences, but we also think a lot about the overall storyline we are creating. Some pieces are absolutely critical to tell a piece of the story, while some are so visually appealing that you can just imagine people taking selfies with their friends when the experience is done.
These exhibits are hugely diverse: there are recent displays on sports and innovation, plus the ones that you develop for other organizations, plus the outside exhibits you adapt for the OSC. How do you ensure the science is accurate and up-to-date in all these different areas?
In order for us to ensure accuracy in our messaging we do a lot of research and one of the first things we research is who the experts are in this field and what is the interesting work they are doing. We reach out to them to ask them what they think is the most important and cutting-edge information that would interest the public. We have often been so inspired by the experts and they have been so excited about sharing their work with the public that the final product is really shaped by the input of the experts.
How do you balance “real science” with the need to be engaging and entertaining across a spectrum of ages and users?
Real science is engaging! There are so many wonderful and weird things that science helps us understand that the main trick is finding the fun stories and then being able to run with them. We want to create an experience that captures that same initial curiosity that members of the team have when they first encounter something. We recognize that people are giving us their free time, which means a great experience has to promote social engagement and multi-generational learning, like kids showing grandparents how to do something, or friends having more fun trying something together. We also want to create some contemplative experiences that spark conversations on topics that might never come up naturally in another setting.
How can you tell when an exhibition is successful? Likewise, how can you tell when something has become stale and needs to be updated?
We can really like an exhibition because of the finished aesthetic or because we hit all our targets—it came in on time, on budget, challenged us, or allowed us to attain a specific goal. The real measure of success comes when we go into the hall and watch visitors interacting with the experience. Are they having fun? Are they doing what we thought they would be doing and spending their time in the places we thought they would? Have they discovered all the things we included in the space? For us to truly understand this, we do formal and informal evaluation of visitor learning in the halls.
Can you share a moment where you really saw the impact and effect of your work—something that really reinforced that you were in the right job?
There are times I walk through the hall and watch visitors interacting with exhibits and think, Wow, that is exactly what we thought people would be doing with this experience. Or the opposite: Wow, that is super creative, how fantastic that we inspired the person to do that. You are so grateful that you are part of a team that is creating this fun learning environment.