On the job: Making science fun for everyone

Who: Mary Jane Conboy, PhD ’99
Job: Director of science content and design, Ontario Science Centre

Where else can you see prehistoric creatures and the latest scientific discoveries in the same place? The Ontario Science Centre has been amazing audiences both young and old since 1969 with its diverse array of exhibits that make science fun for everyone — even if you don’t know the difference between an atom and an axon.

Mary Jane Conboy, director of science content and design, is one of many brains behind the exhibits. Working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, writers, graphic designers and carpenters, she has helped coordinate hundreds of displays.

Every exhibit at the Science Centre starts with a brainstorming session to come up with ideas that can be told as a story. “Then we have to figure out what is the most interesting part about it,” says Conboy, PhD ’99. After developing approaches to the topic, followed by a budget and timeline, all of the exhibits are built on-site.

The exhibits cater to visitors of all ages and backgrounds, and to different learning styles and abilities. “We know that people learn in many different ways,” says Conboy. “There are different parts of each exhibit that medical facilities that are doing appeal to different people.”

Some exhibits create an immersive environment that transports visitors to another place. “In an exhibit hall, there could be something that is tactile, something that is auditory or something that triggers the olfactory sense. It’s about trying to engage all of the senses,” she says.

Her favourite exhibits include a mock rainforest that feels as hot and humid as the real thing. “You learn so much from all of your senses in that particular location,” she says. Another exhibit is not for the faint of stomach, causing visitors to feel as though they’re standing on the edge of a bottomless pit.

The Science Centre has 10 themed halls with hundreds of engaging experiences in each. Conboy recently led an 18-month-long renovation to the AstraZeneca Human Edge hall involving a 10,000-square-foot exhibit with more than 80 experiences related to the human body.

“We try to capture emerging science as much as possible,” she says. “We reach out a lot to the research community. If it’s something about the human body, we reach out to hospitals and medical facilities that are doing cutting-edge work.”

But how does the Science Centre stay relevant in a digital age? While many museums make their collections available online, Conboy says nothing beats seeing them in person.

“I don’t see Google as a direct competitor to museums. When you have little kids come in and say, ‘Wow, that’s real,’ that’s very powerful.”

Her first experience conveying information to the public was during her PhD at the University of Guelph, where she studied land resource science. She did her thesis on bacterial contamination of rural drinking water wells in Ontario and Zimbabwe. Translating complex research for the public paved the way for her career at the Science Centre, where she helps visitors filter fact from fiction.

“The Science Centre brings credible information to the public but does it in a way that is engaging and social,” says Conboy, of broadening visitors’ understanding and experience of science. “By bringing science to the public in a fun way, you’re able to let them discover the phenomenon, and share it with their friends and family.” –SUSAN BUBAK

Photo: Adam Pulicicchio Photography