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Sellers’ shed early fears about science to head museum


Mary Sellers, executive director of the Science Center of Iowa, grew up the youngest of six children in Northville, Mich., and Vero Beach, Fla. She came from a family of volunteers, but also felt pulled into the tourism industry. She combined her interests as vice president of marketing of the Orlando Science Center, before leaving to make the move to Central Iowa with her husband, Sean. Though they’re asked it constantly, they weren’t too apprehensive about leaving behind the sunny skies and miles of beaches for the Hawkeye State. Her six years as the Science Center’s executive director have been highlighted by construction of the 100,000-square-foot museum that will open May 14 in downtown Des Moines. She has been feeding off of the community’s excitement leading up to the grand opening, but more strongly anticipates the days following, “when the real work begins.”

When you were younger, did you ever show an interest in science?

No, science was scary to me. I had this concept that I just wasn’t cut out for science, so I just really never had an innate interest in it. That’s kind of something that drives me now, and that’s something that I kind of regret about my early years. Now I feel that through my work here, I can try to contribute to others’ understanding that science is a process and you do it every day. And it’s not scary. It’s fun and it’s going to advance the world.

What did it take for you to understand that science wasn’t scary?

My father was a civil engineer and worked on the Detroit science center when I was young. I remember going to visit there after the expansion had been completed, and I was really proud of the fact that my dad had worked on it. So going there and seeing how much fun it was to really get in there and play with stuff, that’s really when it kicked in for me. But I think it wasn’t really until I got into the field that I understood just how exciting and fun it could be.

How has your life been influenced by coming from a large family?

You have to fight for those mashed potatoes. Being the last of six kids, I think that it has taught me to really work for what I get. My brothers and sisters all do a variety of things, so I was really trying to figure out how to be an individual and how to pursue what I wanted to do. But yet I have this incredibly huge support system, not only in my siblings, but in my husband as well. So I feel fortunate for the family that I have. It’s the reason I feel I’ve been able to do whatever it is I’ve done.

After being involved in athletics growing up, how do you stay active?

My husband, Sean, and I like to work out a lot, so the gym is kind of a way that we keep our center. I ran the Disney Marathon last year through Team in Training after losing a good friend to lymphoma. He was a runner, and he knew I didn’t like it but he kept me going. One of the last things he said to me was, “I really want you to run a marathon.” He passed away on Aug. 3, 2003, and I began training Aug. 5 and ran the Disney marathon in January of 2004.

What career path did you anticipate taking after earning a journalism degree from the University of Florida?

My mother is extremely involved in her community and always has been, and tells me that I was set up in a crib as she went to non-profit meetings. So I was torn between going into what I thought was an extremely sexy field of tourism or a non-profit field. After working public relations for the Peabody Orlando (hotel), I was trying to figure out how I could transfer my skills from the tourism industry, and an attendance-based non-profit seemed to be the best way. So I began working at the Orlando Science Center.

What do you enjoy most about your job at the Science Center of Iowa?

The thing I love the most is facilitating the multitude of people that have made this new facility possible. This is not a facility I made happen; I helped facilitate the process of making it possible. And so as a result I’ve met incredible people. I was at a funeral for Mike Blank. You go to something like that and see someone’s life presented in that manner, and you just think to yourself, if I could have one-tenth of the life and the impact that someone like that has, then I would consider my life a good one.

What are your thoughts leading up to the Science Center’s grand opening?

We look at this as a celebration of all that Iowa has contributed to the forwarding of science and technology. You look at the honorary co-chairs, the people who really made the investments to make this project happen – Ted and Katie Meredith and the Meredith Family Foundation with their $7 million gift, and Mike and Jackie Blank with their $5 million gift. Through the course of this project, we’ve lost Ted Meredith, Jackie Blank and Mike Blank. Although I know the three of them will be here in spirit when we open this new facility, I think there is a weightier responsibility we feel to make them proud. But that they won’t be able to see the opening day will make opening day bittersweet for us, no doubt about it.

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