Career Profile: Patricia Ward, PhD'88

Alumna discusses lessons learned from venturing into the unexpected

Since securing her PhD in Immunology from the University of Chicago in 1988, Patricia Ward was a researcher at the University. Now, Ward serves as the Director of Science Exhibitions and Partnerships at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), where she has worked since 1999. In this role, Ward and her team conceive and produce museum exhibitions on a wide variety of science topics that are presented in a way that makes the content relevant and accessible to visitors who may not have an academic background in science.

Following her graduation in 1988, Ward served as postdoc researcher in virology at a University lab where she studied the molecular and cell biology of Herpes Simplex virus. At the time, Ward was committed to research and teaching, but after a few years in a research role, she found herself at a crossroads between starting her own lab, staying at the University, or going elsewhere. In the process of seeking faculty positions, Ward said that she developed “bug to do something a little different.” It was during this period that Ward encountered a job posting in Science magazine for an Exhibition Developer at the MSI and knew she wanted the job. While vastly different from the work she had been doing as a researcher, the Exhibition Developer role seemed to align with her love of story and art, and it also resonated with the enjoyment she got out of giving tours of the lab at the University and talking to people about her science research work and the work of her colleagues.

Ward sees a few specific ways that her experience at the University of Chicago has influenced her current work. For example, while working at the University lab, Ward found she very much enjoyed working with undergraduate and graduate students, which has further fueled her interest in communicating information on science topics in a meaningful way to museum visitors who may have little to no familiarity with a given topic. One of the things she really enjoys in creating exhibitions for a broad public audience is the opportunity to learn about a broad range of science topics. In her role at the MSI, Ward has an opportunity to work on a wide variety of exhibition topics that often require input from content experts outside of her academic background. For this, she calls upon colleagues from a wide variety of academic and other kinds of organizations to provide expertise for the team. An exhibit team also includes members that have expertise in design, media production, engineering and a number of other fields. The creative process for developing and designing exhibitions relies on the efforts of a broad range of people as well.

As Director of Science Exhibitions and Partnerships, Ward emphasized the team effort that it takes to produce and bring exhibitions to life for museum visitors to enjoy. Team leaders and project directors vary from project to project based on the content area being covered, learning objectives, interpretation strategies, and who is best suited to lead the team based on expertise in a given area of science. Ward’s first project when she started with the MSI was to develop a genetics exhibit, which was appropriate given her extensive academic and research background in this area. Now, each exhibit requires Ward and her team to take a multidisciplinary approach to how they produce the content and design of the show, and thus the exhibition development team then collaborates with the design, education, collections/curatorial, audience research, project management and facilities departments at the MSI to ensure that learning objectives, artifact collection care, and design and infrastructural standards are being met. For example, the collections and curatorial department is often brought in to the exhibition development process to oversee how artifacts from the collection could be included and displayed so that each object supports the interpretive strategies being employed in the content of the show and is appropriately cared for. As well, the audience research team helps devise audience research protocols to understand museum visitors with regard to how to approach science topics to ensure their relevance and accessibility. Through these examples, Ward underscored that the collaboration behind each of her team’s projects fosters creativity and in-depth content and design development and audience research in the production of the MSI’s science exhibits.

When it comes to presenting science content to the general public, Ward said that she and her team try to find “entry points that are relevant” to the audience. Take, for instance, “Science Storms,” an exhibit currently on view at the MSI. For this exhibit, the development team emphasized the natural phenomenon of storms, which Ward said has been found to be interesting and exciting to a wide variety of individuals. Thus the 40-foot tornado vortex simulator that is currently on view as part of this show was developed to “illustrate the beauty and wonder of the natural world.” It is through these demonstrative examples of science and nature in action that Ward said her team hopes that the visitor will gain knowledge and understanding of science and the natural world.

Why are such exciting entry points important to engaging everyday citizens in science? “Science and technology are part of modern life, and this is becoming more and more evident,” said Ward. One example of this is government policies that are informed by science and the work of researchers in this area: “how can people understand current issues without some knowledge of GMOs, space exploration, fracking, nuclear issues, and healthcare policies?” Ward said that the MSI then has the goal of raising awareness of science, but does not necessarily possess the “objective to get people to leave with facts; it’s about inspiring curiosity, leading to greater engagement with the world.”

When asked about the professional challenges she has encountered throughout the course of her career, Ward said that, “everything is hard. It should be hard. Everything worth doing is hard. If it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth it. Hard for no reason isn’t good, but when [the work] is hard for a purpose, it’s worth it.” Specifically, she pointed to her experience as a PhD student and how perseverance and commitment play a large role in the doctoral student experience: “dealing with constant failure requires focus on the big picture and rewarding [aspects of the work].” Now, as a director at the MSI, Ward says that the greatest challenge she and her team face is the creative interpretation of science. She said that the team is often asking themselves, “here’s great content: how do we make it interesting and relevant to people instead of just translating it for them? And how can we create compelling and authentic experiences for people that are relevant as well as fun?” As for her accomplishments at the MSI, Ward was quick to highlight that the work behind the exhibitions that have been produced for the museum during her tenure has been above all a team effort, and that she is most proud of the body of exhibit work that she and her colleagues have produced. Additionally, Ward cited her staff as a memorable part of her tenure at the MSI. When she began as an employee of the museum, it was a big time of transition and change at the institution. Because of this, Ward made it her goal to build cohesion with a team, and it has been rewarding for her to see her staff’s individual growth and development unfold.

In addition to her full-time position at the MSI, Ward will be a volunteer at Chicago Career Month on November 12, serving as an industry representative for nonprofits. Of her thoughts on the event, Ward said, “the reality is that people don’t know what’s possible. Career Month is where people get ideas.” Ward pointed to her career trajectory as an example of someone who never anticipated where their career would lead, but she made the transition from researcher to exhibit developer by keeping an open mind and following opportunities as they arose. In a similar way, Ward encourages Career Month attendees to “explore as much as you can depending on where you are in your career. Pay attention. Be open-minded.”