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Member Spotlight: Monica Metzler

Monica Metzler
Monica Metzler

The last science class Monica Metzler took was high school chemistry, but this Chicago public policy lawyer-cum-events planner is one of the best friends science has in the City of Big Shoulders.

            Metzler, a AAAS Fellow, is the founder and executive director of the Illinois Science Council, a nonprofit organization that sponsors events celebrating the cutting-edge science happening at Chicago-area institutions and firms. In 2015, through the ISC, she also founded the Chicago Science Fest, a weeklong celebration in May of STEM  “awesomeness” in the city.

            “I am like my audience, ” she said. “I'm educated but I don't understand science. I am one of those people for whom science was scary, something I thought I couldn't do. ”

            Metzler has long since overcome those early fears, and understands the importance of creating an arena where ordinary people feel comfortable approaching science. She quotes Carl Sagan on the dilemma that faces us: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

            So Metzler spends her waking hours connecting Chicagoans with top-flight science-education offerings. She recently brought British astrophysicist Martin Rees to town to speak on humanity's future, and sold out both an event at which people learned to identify the trees they see on their streets every day, and a tour of Argonne National Laboratory in nearby Lemont. She screens science-related movies and puts on events that celebrate Pi Day and everyday chemistry.

            But unlike most public science offerings, these events are not aimed at elementary and high school students; they are designed for adults. Metzler's mission is to create the kind of passion in Chicagoans that they already demonstrate abundantly for the arts. She looks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, the city's fulsome theater community, and throws down their equals in science.

            “The subtext of my mission is my civic pride in just how extraordinary the breadth and depth of science research and outreach is in Chicago,” Metzler said — four top research universities, five major medical centers, “six — count 'em, six — science museums, two internationally recognized zoos doing conservation work, four botanic gardens and plant conservatories, and two national laboratories,” of 17 that exist in the whole country. And that's not to mention tech startups and the major multinational corporation based in science and technology in the area as well, she said.

            “I'm not anti-kid, and I'm not trying to get people to change their careers,” Metzler said, but she does believe that having an adult populace that knows and cares about science is the first step toward having a citizenry that understands important issues like climate change, genetics and the effects of technology on our lives; a Congress that adequately funds scientific enterprises; and children who grow up willing to embrace science themselves.

            Metzler has practiced intellectual property law, focusing on marketing, advertising and event sponsorship agreements. She discovered her inner impresario when the Democratic National Convention came to town in 1996. She did site management for that extravaganza, went on to work on state and national political campaigns, and then headed up the 150th anniversary celebration of her alma mater, Northwestern University, in suburban Evanston, Illinois, a party that spooled out over three years, ending in 2001. She did freelance strategic planning around similar events for a while, “a niche of a niche,” then went back into public policy for Conlon & Dunn, Chicago-based firm.

            But Metzler had begun to notice that while Chicago's rich and varied arts scene is an essential part of the lives of most adult residents, science had been kicked into the kiddie compound. Parents might tag along with their children on trips to science museums, but they weren't making their own plans to engage with science.

            “It's the complete opposite of what happens with the arts,” she said.

            In the fall of 2005, looking over the program for the annual Chicago Humanities Festival, Metzler was troubled to see that science was not on the menu. “That just isn't right,” she recalls thinking. “I can't be the only one out there who thinks science is interesting.”

            She incorporated the Illinois Science Council the following year, but kept her day job for six years because finding funding for an independent science education organization was too difficult at the time. Things changed fast, though. The first science festival in the United States was in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2007; there are now more than forty of them around the country, not to mention science “cafes” and numerous other programs and events.

            “Now every small city has something. I can track the explosive growth of science education in America, because I was there before it happened,” Metzler said.

            Some big foundations like to throw a big science party once every decade or so, but supporting science can't be an occasional effort, Metzler said. Ultimately, a once-a-year festival isn't enough, either. “We've proved there's an audience. Now we have to do things the rest of the year.”

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Monica Metzler
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Delia O'Hara