An interview with Emily Graslie – host of the video blog The Brain Scoop and Chief Curiosity Correspondent at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History
Have you ever been offered the job of your dreams without knowing you were being interviewed? Have you ever communicated with a 5-year-old about the wonders of Salmonella? Have you ever been disappointed not to have larvae hatching from your skin?
If you answered yes to all three questions, then you are either Emily Graslie herself or you should subscribe to her YouTube channel. Immediately.
Although early in her career, 25-year-old Graslie already has some impressive accomplishments to put on her resume: writer, producer, co-creator and host of The Brain Scoop, an educational YouTube channel that promotes science literacy and takes viewers behind-the-scenes at Chicago’s Field Museum. She also holds the awesome title of Chief Curiosity Correspondent, representing one of the world’s largest natural history museums everywhere from social media to events around the country.
Emily Graslie, The Field Museum’s Chief Curiosity Correspondent and host of The Brain Scoop – an video blog that goes behind-the-scenes at Chicago’s Field Museum. Photo courtesy of: Emily Graslie & The Field Museum
While volunteering at the University of Montana’s zoological museum after completing her undergraduate degree in studio art, Emily’s natural ability to make science engaging and damn funny captured the attention of renowned YouTube producer Hank Green. Together they started The Brain Scoop in January of 2013. The vlog was an instant hit, with viewers loving such episodes as Emily’s documentation of the acquisition and preparation of a wolf for the collection.
Just a month after the launch, while on a field trip to film the Field Museum in Chicago, Graslie was in for a surprise. Without knowing she was being interviewed, at the end of her trip Field Museum staff pulled her aside and offered to produce The Brain Scoop onsite in Chicago.
“The Field Museum totally pulled a fast one on me,” Emily told the Chicago Reader.
After getting home to Montana and having time to process this providential appointment, Graslie felt, “overwhelmed by the unlikeliness of the offer, the remarkable opportunity to have the job of my dreams, and the reality of leaving a collection that had meant so much to me,” she told mongabay.com. “I still feel like I won the lottery.”
The Brain Scoop has produced over 100 videos that range in topics from ant sex (a very special Valentine’s Day episode) to explaining that the cool sailed creature (Dimetrodon) in your dinosaur toy collection is not, in fact, a dinosaur. But Graslie and her team gained particular notoriety after an episode titled Where my ladies at?, which talked frankly about sexist views regarding women in the sciences, went viral. While proud of the results of that episode’s success, Emily wants to galvanize viewers to be similarly inspired about conservation.
“[This] tells me that, in general and at large, we’re more interested in social justice issues than we are topics of conservation, or increasing scientific literacy – so I’m still figuring out how to get viewers as impassioned about our natural world as they are social justice,” she said.
Graslie is now enjoying the unique fringe benefits of such a singular job, like little girls putting on their Emily Graslie costume for Halloween this year, complete with the signature glasses and often accompanied by a stuffed wolf. She is on a mission to inspire curiosity.
“Go outside. Explore your world. Ask a lot of questions. Hearing ‘I don’t know’ as an answer is the best thing you can hope for: it means we’re still learning.”
INTERVIEW WITH EMILY GRASLIE, CHIEF CURIOSITY CORRESPONDENT
Mongabay: What did your curiosity look like when you were a kid?
Emily Graslie: I don’t think I was naturally more curious than the average child, but I did relish time spent outside, and traveling. My parents did not allow us to have Gameboys or a Playstation until my sisters and I were well into middle school, which I think was a great thing – it forced us into books and out of doors. I’m not sure if kids today even have opportunities to avoid technology from a very early age, or if they’re just handed tablets as soon as they can hold them – but I’m grateful I was somewhat forced into being creative within my environment early on.
Mongabay: Clearly there is a lot of art, which you studied in college, in what you get to do everyday. Am I right in assuming you have a career that is able to blend quite a few of your interests?
Emily Graslie: I still use my artistic background to make decisions when posting photographs about basic things like line, composition, color, balance. Art school also taught me to have a great appreciation for beauty. There is a lot of beauty to be found in a natural history museum, from its architectural structure to the form and function of artifacts and specimens, and I think that appreciation alone helps to inform and inspire my work.
Mongabay: What was the best result of your “Where my ladies at?” segment going viral?
Emily Graslie: The best result was probably that my audience became enacted to enforce a no-tolerance policy against trolls and sexism on my channel. I’ve got some really devoted viewers and I appreciate them setting good examples for others. Not that you asked, but I’d say the worst result of that video is that it has become what I’m most well-known for, even though we’ve got literally 100 other videos that are about anything but social trolls and have everything to do with natural history. That tells me that, in general and at large, we’re more interested in social justice issues than we are topics of conservation, or increasing scientific literacy – so I’m still figuring out how to get viewers as impassioned about our natural world as they are social justice.
Emily Graslie, The Field Museum’s Chief Curiosity Correspondent stands in front of the collection while filming a segment of The Brain Scoop – an video blog that goes behind-the-scenes at Chicago’s Field Museum and highlights the fun, freaky, and fantastic of the natural world. Photo courtesy of: Emily Graslie & The Field Museum
Mongabay: Tell me your reaction when you found out The Field Museum was going to give you the job of Chief Curiosity Correspondent. Like when you were first alone.
Emily Graslie: Immediately after the discussion where I was offered the job I was supposed to host a group of about 50 people in the Museum for a meet-up and tour. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement and I wanted really badly to tell all of them, but we weren’t yet ready for a public announcement so I had to swallow it all. I don’t think the gravity of this experience being a total life-changer hit me until I had returned to Montana, but I do remember going back to the University of Montana Zoological Museum – where this all started – shutting the door, sitting on the floor, and crying. I was overwhelmed by the unlikeliness of the offer, the remarkable opportunity to have the job of my dreams, and the reality of leaving a collection that had meant so much to me. I still feel like I won the lottery.
Mongabay: Did you propose that title or did they? I want that business card.
Two pages of Maggie’s Brain Scoop-inspired book. Photo courtesy of: Maggie & Emily Graslie.
Emily Graslie: Hah! Our Social Media strategist threw it out as a suggestion and everyone latched on. It is, indeed, on my business cards, and I file it on my taxes.
Mongabay: Let’s talk about curiosity – what are some of your best results in terms of inspiring curiosity in your first year on the job?
Emily Graslie: Nothing compares to parents sending in photos of their daughters dressed up as me for parties, Hero Day at school, or Halloween. The “Emily Graslie” costume seems to consist of a hair braid, glasses, colorful dress, and accompanying stuffed animal – usually a wolf, sometimes a bear. I get pretty emotional every time someone sends me a picture like that. One really awesome five-year old named Maggie mailed me a book she had written/hand-drawn listing her favorite scientific things (habitat, microbe, chemical process, periodic element… I’m not making this up, her favorite microbe is Salmonella and she drew a picture), and listed me as her favorite science person. I would count those types of interactions as the best results.
Mongabay: How long, on average, does it take to write and produce one of your The Brain Scoop segments? Any blooper reels?
Emily Graslie: We do have a few out-takes videos; the great thing about editing is that it can make nearly anyone look deceptively articulate and savvy, myself included. But I have no idea how to quantify, in terms of hours, how long it takes to make a segment. Sometimes we pick up a camera and go, and I can rely on prior knowledge of a subject to facilitate an interview – sometimes the content I need to communicate is something I don’t understand to begin with, like when I had to learn some basic phylogeny of early non-mammalian synapsid diversity for our episode Dimetrodon is Not a Dinosaur. That takes quite a bit longer. Filming that episode took two hours, and editing was probably another 20 hours or so. With just a two-person team, we’re stretched pretty thin to research, write, shoot, and edit a high-quality video every two weeks. It’d be great to have another producer on board.
Mongabay: You just got back from the Peruvian Amazon. The stories from the field team before you left were admittedly somewhat terrifying (and comical). Do you come back with some of your own awesome or horrific stories?
Emily Graslie: I was in the best hands imaginable for this expedition – our Rapid Inventory team has been conducting these surveys for nearly two decades and they have seen it all, so I was put in a pretty relaxed state of mind from the beginning. They also encouraged me to go out on my own on their survey trails, sometimes four or five kilometers from base camp. It was out there when I’d realize how remote I was and how quickly one could find themselves in a compromising situation; I was bitten and stung by unidentified flies and wasps, brushed up against an urticating caterpillar and immediately broke out into a flame-hot rash, smelled a putrid odor in the air before something unseen began growling at me from an unidentified point… accidentally stood in a pit of army ants, waded more than once through opaque water where I knew there were electrical eels, came across a tree gouged with claw marks from a large feline… It was like being a kid again.
Our expedition leader, Corine Vriesendorp, made a really good point in the beginning about how most people’s lives are completely prescribed and we hardly ever get the opportunity to really learn things about who we are through compromising situations. A total “live and learn” mentality. It was incredible, and I hope to go back as soon as possible. So far I haven’t had any botfly larvae erupt from my dermis and I’m a little disappointed, to be honest.
The skull of a Daspletosaurus on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where Graslie is Chief Curiosity Corespondent. Photo credit: Scott Anselmo under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Mongabay: What do you think are the best advantages that the Internet and social media could give young scientists in the future?
Emily Graslie: Social media has done wonders of breaking down walls between scientists and the public, and I think today it’s far easier to see who these scientists are and what they do on a daily basis than it was even ten years ago. We’ve been able to use these platforms to make scientific research and discovery accessible to the “outside” world, and therefore helped make it a field that young people can visualize themselves within. That’s a huge advantage for the future of science as much as it is a benefit for the future scientists.
Mongabay: Do you have any tips for people trying to follow in your footsteps?
Emily Graslie: Go outside. Explore your world. Ask a lot of questions. Hearing “I don’t know” as an answer is the best thing you can hope for: it means we’re still learning.
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