Dr. Mary Anne Moser, BSc’88, MA’92, PhD’05
Community Commitment Award
Current president and CEO of Telus SPARK, co-founder of Beakerhead, an award-winning designer and communications director
It could have ended very badly. As a precocious seven-year-old, Mary Anne Moser and her older sister were waiting to ride a rollercoaster dubbed The Flyer when she jumped on the train before it had stopped. She fell on to the tracks, wedged between two cars.
“A kind stranger yanked me out,” recalls the recipient of the Community Commitment Award. “But, besides being worried about the grease on my white pants and what my dad would say — that was the precise moment when I learned to check my impulses. To analyze and assess the situation before leaping.”
Call it a life lesson or a motto to live by, but couple that sobering moment with Moser’s lust for adventure and relentless curiosity and you’ve got all the ingredients behind Beakerhead — Calgary’s five-day “smash-up of art, science and engineering,” and Moser’s brainchild. Conceived in her garden in Bragg Creek back in 2008, the event was almost named Robertson (a nod to Peter, the Canadian inventor of the square-drive screw), but her partner, Jay Ingram (of TV’s Daily Planet fame) said, “Hands down — Beakerhead is much better.”
Like so many inventions, ideas can take years to germinate and, in Beakerhead’s case, it took five. Moser was, at various points between 2008 and 2013, running the Banff Centre’s Science Communication program, working as communications director at UCalgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, raising triplets — plus, there were book-editing jobs, partnerships that had to be established, fundraising and so forth.
“It took years to get going,” recalls the current CEO of SPARK, “but, during that time, the idea for Beakerhead got sharper, more focused . . .
“We wanted to bring worlds together, we wanted to rip down silos between science and art and, in the process, all these beautiful things happened. Artists found doorways into the world of science and scientists appreciated how much skill goes into creativity work. And the entrepreneurial community got excited about where these things would smash up . . .”
When asked about Beakerhead highlights, Moser defaults to that life lesson on the roller coaster platform: “As the motor behind Beakerhead, I didn’t really take any of it in . . . I was constantly assessing risk, analyzing what we needed to do better, being on full alert.” Trying not to jump.
But there was one moment — during a show called called The Tremendous and Curious World of Beakerhead — that still, years later, embodies the magic behind science. Meant to “act as a gateway drug for people who didn’t know how to ingest this thing that was happening across the city,” Moser lured Col. Chris Hadfield, who had just come off the International Space Station, to sing Space Oddity at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
“The whole place just rose to their feet in a standing ovation,” recalls Moser, breathlessly. “We had robotic things whizzing through the air and giant white balloons bouncing over the crowd. It was magical, I was levitating.”
It was similar to the feeling she had as an undergrad student, when she discovered that she could help build the world she wanted. While pursuing zoology, she bumped into an emerging field called sociobiology, then found professors who were also interested in this new area and, before long, she was in a directed-study program.
“You don’t have to accept what’s on offer,” Moser says, “I had the most amazing education because I wanted to explore new things and people kept saying, ‘Yes, sure, we can do that’!
“When I look back at my education and, I guess, my life, I think all I’ve ever wanted was to create something delightful where science meets society. My first visit to a science centre as a child rocked my world that way and I’ve always wanted to pay that forward.”
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Take the ultimate tour of campus with President Ed McCauley, meet the 2019 Arch Award recipients and find out what UCalgary is doing about the coming health-care crisis as our elder population grows. All this and more in the Fall/Winter 2019 Alumni Magazine.