Ginger Ann Contreras, Illuminating Discovery Hub

IB’s Professional of the Week is the premier way to meet Dane County’s professionals. This week features Ginger Ann Contreras, executive director, Illuminating Discovery Hub, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, UW–Madison.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your job and why?

I enjoy the challenge of tackling new concepts and implementing divergent ideas — there are no best practices to follow and no guidebook for excellence, only your creativity and commitment. There are, however, a lot of wide eyes wondering if you’re going to sink the proverbial ship or master a new way of sailing.

My passion lives at the intersections of arts, creative placemaking, entertainment, and science communication that fuels inclusive approaches that inspire community. I experiment in utilizing and adapting traditional business skills and techniques to serve community and arts for science outreach. I lead the design, development, and implementation of programs like Science to Street Art and Science to Script. Science to Street Art pairs scientists with street artists to create science murals in underserved communities that leverage informal learning. Science to Script pairs scientists with writers to organically inspire science stories and diverse representations of scientists within entertainment for the screen, page, stage, and more.

It can be a hard sell when merging the arts and sciences for sustained civic application as it requires meeting both university and municipal regulations and requirements, as well as artist and community need. Our science-art fusion programming does not fit entrenched and siloed ways of approaching STEM. It pushes the boundaries of a university STEM environment, which speaks to the mission and grand challenges of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. The challenges and rewards are in bringing all the stakeholders and their unique sets of expectations to the table and establishing common ground to collectively take action.

Who do you look up to or admire in business and why?

Growing up, my mentors and role models tended to be people I read about in history books, biographies, autobiographies, and academic and business journals. I didn’t have many people that invested in me, outside of having the support of an amazing mom. The people I admired were either long gone in time or out of reach. I’d write quotes of encouragement I found within their works around my room and in my notebooks to provide a kind of reinforcement and inspiration that was lacking elsewhere.

Still, who and how history is told influences perspective, and some of the people I admired out of history I later learned took actions that were less admirable in different situations. Sometimes the good they had done for one group of people was equally matched with the harm they did to another group. I decided that instead of admiring people, I would admire and respect actions.

Within that lens, actions I admire include:

  • Community minded — prioritizing people;
  • Diversity in self-realization — staying true to one’s self (individual, cultural, generational identity) within professional pursuits;
  • Co-leadership — investing in other’s success; and
  • Science + art + humanities innovations — creating and supporting multidisciplinary approaches for civic significance and connection.

What has been the high point of your career so far?

Hands down, witnessing our K–12 community’s interactions with the murals and artists. It is rewarding to see the artists and scientists making meaningful change with the community that stays in the community through public art assets. From our research, we believe we are the first university to create a recurring initiative that fuses science with permanent public art. Future plans include expanding to other UW System schools and beyond so more communities can share in Science to Street Art, leveraging our methods and template for municipal use that can be owned and led by the community.

As a multiracial woman of color, I have experienced my fair share of closed doors. My goal, through programs like Science to Street Art, is to contribute to systematic changes within the sciences and arts so that future generations do not face the same closed doors that I, and many, experienced. Instead they will experience culturally competent and relevant programs that support and encourage their unique minds and power. This type of pursuit is the work of many. I stand in a line of several people who have worked, are working, or will work on making this a reality.

To that end, every day is a career high point of merging my backgrounds in the arts and sciences to bring new voices to the table and co-create opportunities for broad applications within STEAM.

Thinking back on your career, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

I was a dedicated student who prioritized my education and work experience. I was focused on staying true to myself. But I sometimes hesitated when I should have taken action because I viewed self-promotion as selfishness. I believe that healthy self-promotion does not come at the expense of others, and this has been something learned as I navigate my cultural beliefs and practices within a Western working culture.

My advice to my 21-year-old self would be to believe and trust in your instincts and act. If you are doing it right, there are going to be failures. Learning from failures make you stronger for when you have success.

Also, do not waste your energy on those that do not believe in you. You deserve better.

What would you say are the best things about living and working in Dane County?

My childhood home, Madison, is Ho-Chunk land that has a rich history, breathtaking beauty, and knowledge — if we are willing to listen, value, and honor the land’s voices, teachings, and peoples. Recognizing a place’s ancestry from time immemorial is important to me. My maternal grandmother taught me the importance of ancestry, ancestral land, and my own connection to land that is now divided by northern Mexico and the U.S boarders.

Growing up in Dane County, I have a unique opportunity to utilize my lived experiences to give back to my community from a historical and personal lens. I cherish seeing how the county is changing with more vibrancy within the creative economy, and how I can positively contribute to our land’s future with other leaders and change agents within our community, both established and emerging.

Do you have any secret talents or abilities that people would be surprised to discover?

DNA sleuth. I volunteer my time to help adoptee’s find their birth families. I love puzzles and history and found I had a knack for it! I believe we all have a right to know our genetic history and ancestry, as it is a part of our legacy. I’m not sure if this counts as an ability but I think it is super cool. In terms of the Chinese zodiac, I come from a line of dragon women. I was born in the Year of the Dragon, my mother was born in the Year of the Dragon, and my maternal grandmother was also born in the Year of the Dragon.

What are your guilty pleasures?

I love my job as the executive director of the Illuminating Discovery Hub but we all need down time. Mine is Netflix. And more Netflix. I love stories — how they form, how they move and change people, how they can inspire self-awareness and reflection, or how they can simply distract us and give a reprieve from our own story. Storytelling is my magic.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.