Mary Jane Conboy’s foray into science began with curiosity. In her youth, she spent many hours outdoors wondering how things worked, how certain elements in nature functioned.
“Some things in nature are just so beautiful that it just compels you think more deeply about it,” says Conboy.
Having studied biology and geology at the University of Toronto, Conboy went on to complete a PhD at the University of Guelph. Her expertise is in hydrogeology, the study of rock and underwater processes. She specialized in bacterial contamination of drinking water in wells.
“It really got into an area where you’re looking at how what we do on the top of the land can affect the water quality down below,” she said. “It really emphasizes the interplay of what we do and the impact on nature. And then sort of that impact back on us.”
Today, she’s the director of science content and design at the Ontario Science Centre. For the last two and half years, Conboy has stepped into the shoes of a visitor, creating compelling exhibits. Her method is quite unorthodox in that she strays from the traditional use of blocks of text and stories.
“That’s not really the standard approach here,” she said. “You really have to get people to learn, and really get immersed into the subject. Be compelled by basically having had some experience that really shows them. And then they kind of inquire afterwards. You will sometimes see that there are text and stories near the exhibit, but the idea is that you’re doing the exhibit and there’s something about it.”
Essentially, the visitor leaves the Science Centre filled with awe, bottled with more curiosity about the world.
Last June, Conboy and her team finished an exhibit about innovation, presenting visitors with open-ended experiences. In order to do so, Conboy deconstructed the skills an innovator has, such as being persistent, the willingness to test and tweak and the tenacity to try it over and over again. Another skill is not being afraid to make mistakes.
“Basically, we know as a society we have to change the way people are thinking. Develop different problem solving skills. That’s how we get solutions to today’s problems, by having those innovative ways of looking at the same thing but coming up with something different. The goal of the hall is really to inspire innovative behaviour.”
In the fall of 2013 the Science Centre will unveil the Human Edge, its newest exhibit. It takes the Human Body Hall to a whole new level.
“If you tell the story [of the human body] by looking at it in the context of somebody who’s pushing their physical abilities to the limit, you start to learn a lot of new science,” she says.
Part of The Human Edge focuses on the respiration system and a sport called free diving. It’s where the diver holds their breath for about three minutes, swimming deeper into the water. This portion of the exhibit, narrated by a champion diver, explores what the dive feels like at specific time intervals. At the same time, it looks at the respiration system.
“It’s a really different way of focusing on one of the core systems in the human body, but doing it in a really compelling way.”