Physicist Olivia Castellini Talks About Mentoring

My name is Olivia Castellini and I’m senior exhibit developer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
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My name is Olivia Castellini and I’m senior exhibit developer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I help make all of the exhibits that are here. I help develop the content, design the experience and what people get to do when they’re here in the exhibit.

Science Storms
The Science Storms exhibit with the 4-story tornado and the avalanche disk. My role on that project was to develop the science content, but also the activities and the experiences that our visitors have when they come in. So helping think about designing a tornado so that people can come manipulate and stand in to understand dynamics of gas laws and thermodynamics. So the Science Storms exhibit features 7 natural phenomena. You have a tornado, avalanche disk, tsunami, sunlight, fire, lightning and atoms in motion. With each of those it’s sort of a pathway into a different area of physics or chemistry.

Numbers in Nature
Numbers in Nature is another exhibit here that is about finding the patterns and the math that underlies them out there in the world. There are certain patterns that occur all the time. There are spirals. Our ear is a spiral.. a spiral galaxy. We can find these patterns.. branching happens, you see tree branches all over the place, the airways in our lungs branch. So if you find these patterns that reoccur all over the place, we can use math to describe them to either understand that thing better or understand connections between things in our world.

I could not have told you when I was a kid that I would end up working in a science museum designing science exhibits. I’ve always been interested in science and math. I also started out as a violin player when I was five so I always had sort of the math and the arts thing going on.

When it came to down to it, I ended up double majoring in physics and music and really loved it. At the end of college, decided to pursue my Ph.D. in physics.

Her Mentors
I was very luck to have some really phenomenal teachers, especially in physics. Finding those mentors along the way is so important and I was very lucky. The other aspect of that I really appreciate now as well is that I had female mentors in physics. Starting with my high school physics teacher who ultimately inspired me to go into the field, she was wonderful, a phenomenal teacher and really a great resource for me at that stage.

Then when I got into undergrad, there was female professor who was my adviser who was fantastic. Then as a graduate student, there was a female faculty member who was not my adviser, but she took an interest in me and really helped me along the way.

Rounding it all out, when I got to my post-doc, I worked for a wonderful professor who was also a woman in engineering who really did a great job helping me figure out the next steps after grad school and really helped me pursue my interests and define what those were.

Importance of Mentoring
For other students and women who are interested in pursuing degrees in STEM, I think it’s important to seek out a mentor, particularly female mentors. In my experience as a physicist, I was one of the few women in the room most of the time and there’s a difference, a different way of thinking, and a different aspect to the collaboration and the scientific process that I think women can bring that is unique. Finding other women who can help you feel more comfortable in that situation, and help find your voice and learn how to work collaboratively with other people in your research group is very important. With the work I do now, in working with students and teachers, I find a real responsibility and I try very hard to be a mentor myself and to encourage female students and female professors to become mentors themselves because it is so important and it can make such a difference.

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