Promoting accurate, positive and diverse portrayals of scientists in entertainment is among the projects Ginger Ann Contreras has undertaken as executive director of the Illuminating Discovery Hub at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, or WID, at UW-Madison.
Illuminating Discovery is one of three WID “discovery hubs,” a primary purpose of which is to integrate university research into the community.
To that end, Contreras, 31, is working on projects including Science to Street Art, which in partnership with the Madison School District will engage artists to create science-themed murals in Madison. Another is Science to Script, focused on portrayals of scientists in entertainment.
Contreras grew up in Madison, graduated from West High School and UW-Madison, and previously spent time as a tour guide at the state Capitol.
Tell me about the Science of Street Art.
We’re going to be connecting scientists with street artists throughout the city of Madison to create murals that are highlighting research and science concepts — including technology, engineering and math concepts.
One thing that I find that is really important in terms of learning styles is that seeing concepts in science that you’re learning about or that you will learn about helps to personalize the concept where then you feel you have more agency to learn it, and it increases the competency levels. So having a mural where you’re seeing the periodic table, when you end up in chemistry, you go, “Oh my gosh, I’ve seen that element.”
What responsibility do entertainment and media have to shape society?
Entertainment plays a huge role and is an introduction for a lot of students into what professions are out there and what kind of profession they want to have. By 2050, 51 percent of our population will be people of color, and our entertainment being a way of looking at future professions, we’re not going to have the people we need in professions in order to have a thriving community and a thriving nation. Media, just the same as celebrities, do have a responsibility to the public to create successful role models and find ways of how their content is contributing to a healthy nation and healthy communities. Story has the power to do that.
What do you remember from your days as a Capitol tour guide?
For me it was the human connection. In the Capitol they have all these different murals, and they’re particularly in the governor’s conference room. We have several that are recognizing some of our military service members. I had one member of the community and he shared with me — because he was in Vietnam — how it was meaningful for him to see the history represented within the Capitol.
It was really neat to hear the student perspectives. It really shows you in terms of the age group, what their interest is, and it’s about piquing that interest so they’ll continue to ask questions later.
One of my first tours that I had was with pre-kindergarten (students). Right outside of the governor’s conference room we have the bronze badger that used to be on one of our ships, the USS Wisconsin. A lot of people go to the Capitol and rub the nose of the badger for good luck, and so that’s a big hit with the younger kids.
You said your grandmother was integral to your community involvement. How so?
My grandma came to the U.S. (from Mexico) when she was about 8 years old by herself. She did child labor to send back money to her family. She had a lot of hardship. She had no formal education. This was in rural Wisconsin. She lived in Wautoma.
My grandma was really determined and strategic in how she approached her children and really wanting them to have an education, so she encouraged and made sure to prioritize that they were able to go to school. She took great pride in that all of her children graduated with a high school degree. It was difficult for her but she knew it was important to being able to get to a next level of success and continuing a family legacy of change.
She encouraged (her children) and said this is something you need to do and that stuck with my mom. My grandmother created a legacy of asking questions and going into school in a way of not worrying about what you don’t know, but trying, which can be a very scary experience but is incredibly enriching when you do find those connections. It’s informed a lot of my work.