Spring 2011

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The Girl in the Cube

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Matt Paolelli (J05, GJ06) is a Web content producer for Northwestern University. Watch his video interview with Kate McGroarty. Watch McGroarty's one-minute application video.

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In her month at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry Kate McGroarty (C08) lived the mantra “Eat, Sleep, Science.”

by Matt Paolelli

Last October Chicago theater artist Kate McGroarty (C08) beat out 1,500 applicants vying to spend a month living in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. McGroarty won $10,000 and spent 30 days interacting with museum visitors while blogging, tweeting and sharing her experiences online. Spending her days in a transparent cube in the middle of the museum and her nights sleeping in a private bedroom behind the scenes, McGroarty eventually came to call the entire museum home. She spent one night in the museum’s World War II German submarine, participated in educational programs, enjoyed unrestricted access to the museum’s collections and even had breakfast with astronaut Jim Lovell. McGroarty spoke with Northwestern magazine’s Matt Paolelli about this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Why would you ever want to live in a museum for 30 days?

It sounded like the most extraordinary adventure I could ever have. I don’t have a lot of money to travel, so getting paid to have some sort of crazy experience sounded great. I was never that into science, but I knew I had to apply for this. It was the perfect job for me. I still can’t believe how much creative license the museum staff gave me for my videos and blog posts, but we all had the same goal of getting people into the museum and getting them to care about science. I feel like every skill that I have contributed to that mission.

The museum scheduled almost every minute of your day. Was it hard to readjust to a normal routine?

I wake up and see that I have no e-mail messages, and I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve been at a loss because I don’t have to check Facebook or Twitter or YouTube and respond to any comments.  It’s also very weird to not have to be constantly reporting on everything I’m doing. I still catch myself making mental notes, such as “That would make a good blog post!” or “You should take a picture of that!” “Oh, wait, now it doesn’t matter!”

During your stay you were featured everywhere from Good Morning America to the Yahoo home page. Are you a local celebrity now?

I’ve been recognized a couple times, which is very strange every time it happens. I got out of the museum on a Thursday and went home to catch up with my roommates. Then I went to the grocery store, and that’s where I was recognized for the first time. Someone asked, “Weren’t you that girl who lived in the museum? When did you get out?” and I said, “Three hours ago.”

I can’t stress how important it is to have a group of friends who knew me before I had this experience and who do not think I’m a big deal, because I don’t think I’m a big deal either.

I am never going to be embarrassed by people knowing me as “the museum girl.” It was a program I believed in and a program with a lot of value, both educationally and personally. I’m always going to want to talk about it and laugh about how ridiculous it was, because I also think it was entirely bizarre and wonderful.

Did you get to keep any of the Kate cardboard cutouts that the museum used to promote your stay?

I did keep one. It’s actually made of plywood and is a lot heavier than you’d think. It’s currently propped up in front of one of the windows in my kitchen, so if I draw the curtains back, it’s just a fake Kate staring out into the world. I think she might be wearing a pirate eye patch right now, too. I might put her on rollerblades this summer.

You were a theater major at Northwestern. How did your time at the University prepare you for this role of a lifetime?

One of the biggest and best things I learned at Northwestern was how to be an observational person and how to observe the world through both a reporter’s and an artist’s eyes. At Northwestern we were encouraged to go out and pursue anything and everything that we gravitated toward, and I did. Someone said this experience was a triumph for the liberal arts education, and I think it was.

What do you think your first trip back to the museum will be like?

I’m intentionally going alone, and I think I’ll need at least an hour or two to walk around the museum by myself. My last night there was when I really said goodbye to everything. I wandered around sobbing my eyes out all night. It was my home, and I knew I’d never see it like that again. When I go back there, the kinds of memories I have will be so different from anyone else’s memories.

What’s next?

I never had a scientist as a role model when I was growing up. But I’m really good at being a storyteller and getting people excited about things. So I hope I can use my skills to be a positive role model for the pursuit of higher knowledge for young people.

I really want to be involved in education, and I want to do so in a way that brings my talents to the table as best I can. Thanks to Northwestern, I have a great background in storytelling for young people. I also love working with high schoolers. I’d love to find a job where I could combine every experience I have had. Someone said I have become the poster child for being a nerd. I would love to be a professional nerd forever, and now I just need to figure out a way to do that.