Olivia Castellini on Being the Senior Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Industry & Science, Chicago
“I love science. I love the big, crazy ideas of science.” When Olivia Castellini was just five years old, she accidentally got locked inside the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. As the impressive institution was about to close, her family was making its exit, but the future scientist stopped dead in her tracks, captivated by a space capsule she noticed hanging directly above her. That was the beginning of her lifelong affair with science, sparked by unabashed curiosity and the unquenchable desire to know “how stuff works.”
At the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago (MSI), where for the last 16 years Dr. Castellini has been working as its senior exhibit developer, she gets to ignite the same sense of curiosity in other children. There, kids can see a 13-foot replica of a heart that actually beats, or take charge of a 40-foot tornado, or run around a mathematical mirror maze. They can step into the future as easily as they can set foot into the past. But above all, they get to experience a sense of wonder in the present moment, which can change the trajectory of their lives.
“While it’s important to provide programs directly to youth, there are a range of important influencers who guide them, help them make decisions about school and careers, and build their science literacy,” reads the official MSI press release. “That’s why the Museum’s unique approach supports youth and all those who are essential to their success – their families, teachers, schools and communities – with resources and opportunities.” Understanding the transformative power of role models, Castellini works hard to be one.
“I love that I get to create experiences that share that joy of discovery and the delight of knowing science with the world,” she states enthusiastically. Aside from developing exhibits, she is a sought-after speaker who is frequently invited to present at different conferences, address the media, collaborate on developing various STEM programs with different educators, and act as a STEM ambassador and high-profile model for middle and high school girls. In addition, Castellini is an IF/THEN Ambassador to activate a culture shift among young girls to open their eyes to STEM careers.
Castellini is a great person to look up to. She began playing violin at the age of five, eventually, joining a youth symphony. She studied music and physics at DePauw University, and then signed with Ford Models and earned a second-degree black belt in shaolin kempo karate as she finished her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin. And if being an accomplished musician, model, athlete (she completed seven marathons), an actor was not enough, she is also living her best life as a wife and mother to her three-year-old daughter.
ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking to Olivia Castellini about her incredibly awesome job, fascinating life, and the sobering challenges faced by youth learning STEM today.
So, how long does it take to prepare an exhibition for display?
It’s really project dependent. When we’re talking about permanent exhibits — not traveling or temporary exhibits — depending on the scale and subject matter, it could be two years, or it could be five or six years. There’s a lot of range.
So, for example, we have an exhibit called Science Storms that is 26,000 square feet. At MSI, we have this gorgeous, historic, giant building, which allows us to do things that are audacious — things that nobody else gets to do. So, we put a 40-foot tornado in there, a really large scale recreation of the phenomenon. From the first concept to the ribbon cutting ceremony, that exhibit took about five-and-a-half years. But something like our Numbers in Nature exhibit, which is about math and patterns in nature, and includes a mirror maze, had a two-year developmental cycle.
Where were you born?
I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio. I am one of seven children, six girls and one boy, my brother is the baby. There were seven of us born in eleven years. My parents went through great lengths to support our individual interests and encouraged us to do everything. When there are so many kids, you have to do something to distinguish yourself. So, each of us ended up following a different interest. My parents were very mindful about choosing schools for us, and steered us to colleges that really suited each of us individually, which is absolutely amazing.
What were your interests specifically?
A lot of my interests stem from my parents’ approach to bringing us up. I’ve always solidly been a nerd, but I have also been a creative. I have always loved building things and taking things apart. My brain is inherently wired to think about how things work. I’ve been one of those people who just have a scientific view of the world, inherently, since I was a kid.
I also LOVED math class. It's like solving little puzzles, I find it endlessly fascinating. I’ve also always loved music, I started playing the violin when I was five. I have been able to travel all over the world, playing. It entertains me to no end when people are surprised that scientists are also creatives in some capacity. But I love the violin.
I started attending The School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati when I was in the sixth grade. I studied instrumental music, vocal music, and drama, so my formal theater training started there. While academics stayed the primary focus, sports went by the wayside, so that I could do music productions and be in the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra.
So you were doing music and you were into math and building things. And you were very physically active, is that how you got into martial arts?
No, that was more of being in grad school for physics and having a hobby where you get to hit things. I sort of had a background fascination with martial arts, but it was never a big thing while growing up. But Bruce Lee films, you know, just looked cool! I certainly was active as a kid, I played a lot of soccer around Cincinnati, I also swam all summer long. At the time, I would not have described myself as athletic, but we were always involved in something.
As you get older, there are a lot of choice points that your future sort of falls out from. I went to Interlochen Arts Camp, twice: once in junior high and once in high school. Going into the ninth grade, I had to make a choice: study music all summer, or attend the conditioning camp for the soccer team — and if you didn’t go to the camp you couldn’t do the try outs. I decided to study music. It’s worked out pretty well for me since then, so I think I made the right choice there.
But, I didn’t return to sports until I went to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, at U.W. I happened to walk past a martial arts studio going to and from the lab every day, and I was like: Hey, why not? It was cathartic. But it also built a sense of community with the people I was training with. It was something I didn’t get to experience for a while, I was on teams as a kid, but it had been a very long time.
But you also started modeling in grad school, didn’t you?
Yeah. Again, it was not all intentional. For me, modeling was a means to an end. It was an easy side gig for me to do and still be back in the lab.
When did you become interested in physics?
I always thought that I wanted to go to medical school because I was really interested in being a cardiac surgeon. That is, until freshman biology, when I removed the entire thoracic cavity of a fetal pig without realizing it, and then I thought: Maybe I’m not so good with scalpels.
During my senior year of high school is when I took physics. I had an amazing high school physics teacher, which nobody said, ever. That’s one of the unfortunate things about physics education at that level — by and large, teachers are not set up to teach it well. But I happened to have this really wonderful teacher and I really enjoyed the class. So, when I was applying to colleges, I was applying as both a music and pre-med major.
My mother made me apply to DePauw University, which I thought was just a tiny school in the middle of nowhere in Indiana that she thought I would be well suited for. But, at the time, my 18-year-old know-it-all self was just indignant. DePauw University is a liberal arts college and did not offer a pre-med major, so I just checked the box on physics, since you have to take physics to get into pre-med anyway.
Things turned out well. Despite my initial protest, I loved DePauw and I ended up following my interest, though it was not the most intentional choice I've ever made. When I talk to students now, I joke about it. But I’m a big believer in following your gut and your instincts. I didn’t know going into it, but it turns out I’m a physicist.
Did you like anything specific in the field?
I loved optics; there is something really satisfying about ray tracing diagrams. But what I really learned is that I love being in a lab and building things.
Pretty quickly into grad school, I discovered that I wasn’t in love enough with research to make it my career, to do it for a living. I like science, I like big ideas, but the minutiae of research didn’t get me excited. But, I committed to it and I was going to stick it out.
So, when I completed my thesis and was looking at the next step — in academia they tell you that you can get a postdoc or you can go into industry, and neither of those really got me excited — I didn’t like teaching. I didn’t like being put on the spot in front of a classroom full of students, and so I started looking for industry jobs. I got a couple of nice offers, but I knew that none of them were the right fit for me, which terrified me. At the 11th hour I found a listing for a postdoc doing education outreach, which was not something I’d ever heard of. The job was also at U.W., in Madison, at the college of engineering. The job was working with researchers to translate their lab research into material for the general public, like lab guides for high school chemistry classes and table top demos. All of that would include working with people doing nanotechnology-related research. It was the first job description that I read that got me excited, and I thought: I can be really good at this.
Is there a difference between physics and condensed matter physics?
Condensed matter is a subset of physics. Quantum computing and nano structures, etc.
Solid state physics is synonymous with condensed matter physics.
How did you get into exhibit development?
Serendipity plays a large part in my life. I took the postdoc doing education outreach and was quite literally told that I was throwing my career away. But it felt right and I’m stubborn, so I took the postdoc and fell in love with the work. I had an amazing advisor, Professor Wendy Crone, who is still at U.W.
My title was Program Coordinator, which entailed managing an internship program for graduate students, who were interested in doing public science outreach. So, we were involved in everything, from working with middle school teachers and developing curriculum to making a board game about the social implications of nanotechnology. It was the first taste I had of science communication. I began to realize that what I love is the big ideas of science; I got really excited about the challenge of conveying those big ideas, and the excitement of what science is trying to discover, to the public.
We got involved with the Discovery World Science +Technology Center over in Milwaukee. They reached out to us as experts about nanotechnology, and they wanted to do a prototype exhibit. So, I led my team of interns to make the prototypes, and that was the first “Huh, well that’s cool!” moment that I had. I loved it.
A museum exhibit is not a conversation. You can’t talk to people, you have to assume what they know coming into it; you have to teach them what you want them to know without confusing them; and, you can only do that with what you give them to do or by writing on the exhibit panel. And, you have to show them a good time in six seconds or they walk away; there is research somewhere out there in the world that supports this.
At the time, I was perfectly happy and had zero intention of moving on from my postdoc, I’d only been there about nine months. But one of my students was graduating and looking for positions as a museum educator. In her job search, she stumbled on a listing for an exhibit developer for this small little exhibit called Science Storms at MSI in Chicago.
I’d never really thought about museums as a career, but I read the description and the only thing I had, out of the entire list of requirements, was a degree in science. I took the job description to my postdoc advisor and she was like: I like you, and I don’t want to lose you, but if you really think that this is what’s next for you, you have to do this. And so, with all of nine months of experience, I applied for the job. Sixteen years later, I’m still here. The opportunity just fell into my lap.
Science Storms, which was supposed to be a small 7,000 square foot exhibit, quickly blew up into this giant extravaganza and turned out to be a five-and-half year project. Now it’s a permanent exhibit. Working on an exhibition like that is a once in a career type of thing. And what I didn’t know going into it at the time is how lucky I was. I’ve gotten a masterclass from the best of the best on exhibit design and fabrication and engineering. I still feel so grateful and fortunate to be part of that team.
So what did you have to do to put the exhibit together?
We have a creative team in-house. It usually consists of a project director, an exhibit developer (who leads the overall creative development of the project), and a project manager (who deals with budgets, schedules, and logistics). The exhibit developer and project director kind of dream it up, but the project manager makes it exist in three dimensions. We also have graphic designers and educators on the team, so that we can develop companion experiences.
So, for Science Storms, we worked with our in-house creative team but we also hired a design firm, called Evidence Design, based out of Brooklyn and they were equal partners with us in the creative development and the design of the entire project.
How many people do you have as part of the design team?
It varies by project. The in-house team tends to be less than ten, depending on the scope of the project and the bandwidth. For Science Storms we had a slightly larger team; there were six of us on the core team.
So when you have an idea for an exhibit, what happens?
An idea for an exhibit can come from a few different places. We can explore topics that we think are relevant to the museum. For example, when we did Numbers in Nature, we looked around and were like: Huh, we don’t have any content about math. It seemed like at a science and industry museum, a fundamental concept like math should be represented. Another way is by looking at relevant and important topics in general. So, things like artificial intelligence, the environment, and other subjects that fit in well with the museum’s mission.
For Numbers in Nature, there was this idea for a mirror maze that was part of a pitch package from years ago. One of our donors was like: “That’s great, I remember that, I would fund that!” So that was the starting point that I was handed: The exhibit had to be about math and it had to involve a mirror maze. By the way, have you heard of anything called fractals? We eventually found a story about recurring patterns in nature. So if you look, there are spiral galaxies, and spirals in your ears, and spirals in a violin scroll, and so we really started to hone in on this idea. And math is the Rosetta stone that sort of unlocks the scientific understanding of nature based on observable patterns.
That’s kind of the job, you have to hunt around for inspiration: you read books, you watch a lot of documentaries, you look for anything that kind of sparks an idea. I don’t do lab research anymore, but I do get to stick my nose into other people’s labs and kind of see what they are working on and what the big ideas are. Sometimes I get to go down to the museum floor and talk to our guests. So, after casting a wide net and then reading everything possible, you bounce around the ideas with everybody and put together boards with different concepts and pretty pictures. Somewhere out of that messy creative process you get a kernel of an idea, and I love it. Each exhibit that I've done has its own version of that story.
So what’s a typical day for you?
It depends on what project I'm doing and what stage of that project we’re in.
What exhibit in Science Storms do you like the most?
An element that I love, more than anything else, is the tsunami wave tank! We have a thirty-foot long tank where you can create different kinds of ocean waves, or tsunami waves, and we use it to talk about how waves move energy from one place to another. I love it because the design and the engineering of the exhibit required the most trade offs between design and the science we’re trying to demonstrate. It also has a big glass case around the motor so you can actually see the whole mechanism work, and I love seeing the guts of any kind of machine.
Who makes up your target audience?
Our target audience is middle school. So eight to twelve-year-olds, and families.
Do you approach an exhibit intended for adults in the same way you approach an exhibit for children?
The science literacy of your average American adult is about that of a middle schooler anyway. We say that our target audience is a middle schooler, but we understand that the middle schooler may have a younger sibling, or that we can get empty nesters, or college kids from the University of Chicago on a date night. So, keeping that in mind, the way that we approach the exhibits is by layering the experience, and layering the content so it speaks to a wide range of audiences.
Many of the people who work with you appear to be women.
I’ve realized how important it is to have strong female role models and how important it is for me to be one myself. Particularly when you look at academia, physics has the worst gender imbalance, and that is not lost on me. When I think back as early as high school, I’ve been very lucky to have female advisors throughout my schooling and career, but I realize that this is not true for most women or female-identifying individuals. This is not going to be normalized until more of us step up and become role models for others.
As a parent, do you worry about the level of science education in our public institutions?
I appreciate and feel fortunate to be in a position where I can supplement and support my daughter’s science education on a level that a lot of parents can’t, just because I am a scientist. Sadly, I accept the reality that her science education will need to be supported. At this point, she’s three, so I don’t think too much about choosing schools or seeking out educational opportunities, because I am fortunate enough to have the resources and the skills to support her. But it bums me out that not every kid out there has that kind of support or options.
What is the most important aspect of getting people interested in science?
Storytelling. We have to spark interest and engagement. We don’t have tests at the museum, but if a kid sees something and they are like, I didn’t fully understand it but It was so cool that I want to learn more about that, that is an absolute win. Lessening aversion to or sparking interest in science is amazing. If I go up to someone and tell them I want to talk to them about math, they can’t run away from me fast enough, but if I start telling them about cool patterns in the cosmos and in nature, it's a different reaction.
What do you like to read?
Not science books. Give me a good beach read any day. I like historical fiction.I like a good suspense thriller. As a kid I think I read every single Agatha Christie (1890 - 1976) novel there is.
What kind of music do you like?
What kinds of movies do you like?
Anything but horror.
What kind of art?
Lately, I’ve been into immersive digital art. Also classics, like Renoirs, Rembrandts. I do not appreciate modern art as much, but that is just me, it’s nothing to detract from the work.
Note* Images are sourced from the MSI media page, used with permission.