In the fall of 2010 one of Emily Graslie's classmates suggested that she visit the zoological museum at the University of Montana, where she was a senior majoring in studio art, to which Graslie replied, "What's a zoological museum?" Today, she works at the Field Museum, where her job, essentially, is to answer that question.
Graslie, 24, is the Field's "chief curiosity correspondent" and the host of the Brain Scoop, an educational YouTube channel with more than 200,000 subscribers. While the former has solidified her career as scientist, the latter has made her something of a celebrity—and an unwitting feminist science icon. On the Brain Scoop's weekly episodes Graslie does everything from dissecting zebras to explaining the idea of de-extinction. She goes on insect-collecting trips. She describes the apparently pleasant smell of dead chipmunks. It's her dream job.
"I really had no interest in studying science at all," she told me when I visited her recently at the Field. When she took that first visit to a zoological museum she was a semester away from getting her art degree and thought the setting might provide good fodder for sketching. "It was breathtaking," she recalls. "Every square inch of the place was packed, full of specimen boxes, skeletons, taxidermy mounts, taxidermied birds hanging from the ceiling. It was absolutely overwhelming the amount of things in there. I knew as soon as I went in that I wanted to work in the space."
She arranged with the museum's curator to do an independent study on scientific illustration, but before long she was more interested in researching the specimens than drawing them. She says that at the end of the 2011 school year, "I graduated but I didn't want to leave."
Graslie started volunteering full-time as the museum's curatorial assistant, working in a bakery to help pay the bills, and began taking online classes for a master's degree in museum studies through Johns Hopkins. In addition to giving tours, preparing specimens, and helping with undergraduate classes, she hoped to publicize the work of the museum. She did this as part of an uphill battle for more funding and space, but also because she wanted to share her newfound love of zoology. "I just thought, 'I'm going to clean three bighorn sheep heads today—I think that's kind of remarkable. Maybe I'll start a blog.'"
That blog brought her to the attention of Hank Green, one of the most popular creators on YouTube. He hosts or produces seven different channels—including Vlogbrothers, which currently has 1.7 million subscribers—and, fortuitously, lives in Missoula, Montana. He visited Graslie at the museum and then asked if he could film her giving a tour for an episode of Vlogbrothers. It aired on December 7, 2012. That was a Friday. The following Monday, Green e-mailed Graslie with an offer to help her start her own show.
"She was smart, weird, hilarious, attractive, knowledgeable, passionate," Green told me in an e-mail. "Every comment on the video was like 'SHE NEEDS HER OWN SHOW!' It was pretty much a no-brainer."
The natural sciences don't drive a lot of Web traffic, and to make a show interesting to the general public it would have to be both knowledgeable and accessible, academic and funny, thoroughly researched and spontaneous. The remarkable thing about Graslie, and what probably explains her success, is how effortlessly she hit that note from the first moment she was on camera. She showed Green finger monkey skulls and a four-legged duck, made jokes about arsenic, and explained that to prepare the museum's birds you "remove the brain with a very sophisticated tool called a brain scoop."
Two weeks later Green announced on another episode of Vlogbrothers that the Brain Scoop would begin producing episodes in January 2013. The new channel had 20,000 subscribers before the first upload.
If Graslie has a trademark, besides the red nail polish she always wears, it's how she introduces scientific topics to her viewers in a way that's simultaneously zealous and nonchalant. In her first episode, she describes the museum's bird room as "arguably my favorite room in the entire collection, if not the whole universe of the world" before pointing out a raccoon she found "behind a cabinet a couple of months ago" and noting, "we also have a bunny on the floor but he's only got one ear."
The Brain Scoop had a loyal following from the beginning, but what might have been its big break was the museum's acquisition of a wolf in the show's first month. The six episodes devoted to it—including "Getting the Wolf," "Skinning the Wolf," and "Gutting the Wolf"—remain among the most popular the channel has produced, netting a collective 987,000 views. The process of dissecting the wolf up close, from start to finish, makes for eye-popping and occasionally uncomfortable viewing. Graslie often compares animal parts to food (frozen wolf muscle looks like pepperoni). The wolf episodes also introduced viewers to the Brain Scoop "Grossometer," shown at the start of each episode to warn the squeamish.
The wolf had been hit by a car, and in the first episode Graslie drives to collect it from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "Hi, I'm Emily Graslie. I'm on my way to pick up a wolf that Liz said she was holding for us. It's in the freezer," Graslie says into a cell phone as the episode opens. "Oh! Sorry!" she says, hanging up. And then, "I accidentally called LensCrafters."
The wolf series was the ideal outlet for Graslie's brand of citizen science—hands-on, exploratory, fun. "I was afraid people were gonna think I was disgusting, or like I was a sociopath," Graslie says. "I didn't think any scientists would like it; I was afraid [they] would see the show and say, 'She doesn't know what she's talking about, she's making this shit up.'"
But the opposite was true. During the first month of the show, a writer at Scientific American called her "articulate and hilarious," and in his blog post titled "What Is It About Emily?" RadioLab's Robert Krulwich attributed her allure to the fact that "she's so happily, totally into dead things."
"I was afraid people were gonna think I was disgusting, or like I was a sociopath. I didn't think any scientists would like it; I was afraid [they] would see the show and say, 'She's making this shit up."" —Emily Graslie, host of the Brain Scoop
Then, in February 2013, Graslie called the Field Museum to ask if she and her producer could fly to Chicago in April to film the Field's annual members' night, when museum supporters are given access to the collections and to the curators and scientists. The museum agreed. Graslie recalls that on the last day of her visit "the Field Museum totally pulled a fast one on me." She was asked to come to a meeting to give feedback on the members' night from an outsider's perspective. Once she was in the room, Bill Stanley, the collections curator, told her that the Field was interested in producing a show like the Brain Scoop—and that the museum wanted to enlist her to do it. "I said yes right there," Graslie says.
"Talking about our science is one of the things we need to continue to do better, and Emily's vlog really helps us do that," says Meg Robinson, the Field's director of communications. Robinson credits the museum's new leadership, including president Richard Lariviere, for understanding the importance of new media and the potential impact of the Brain Scoop, which is now funded by a private grant for digital initiatives at the Field.
Graslie's last episode from Montana was posted in August, and episodes from the Field Museum began the next week. "I'm going to miss it a lot," she says in the episode "Farewell, Montana," but the opportunity to move from a museum with 24,000 specimens to a museum with 25 million was impossible to pass up. Plus, after filling out a specimen invoice, Graslie was allowed to bring the stuffed raccoon she'd rescued from behind the cabinet, which by that point was a fixture of the show.
Graslie drove a U-Haul from Montana to Chicago by herself and settled into her apartment. In her spare time she continues to draw and paint—vestiges of her premuseum life. A recent charity fund-raiser organized by Green promised an original painting by Graslie as the perk for a $5,000 donation, and she's working on that painting now. As evidenced in the episode "Recommended Reading," her leisure reading tends towards museum history and biographies of taxidermists. But even when she's not at the museum, most of her time is dedicated to the Brain Scoop—managing social media, researching, and writing scripts for new episodes.
"We went from just talking about vertebrates—mammals, primarily, and some birds—to being able to talk about anthropology and geology and paleontology and botany," Graslie says of the move to the Field. "So it's opened almost an infinite number of doors." When I talked to her earlier this month she had just returned from Kenya, where she was filming and assisting in bat collection with one of the Field's mammal curators. Another upcoming episode will follow the months-long process of printing a 3-D cheetah. The original specimen is too fragile for display, Graslie explains, "so we put this skinned, pickled cheetah on a bed and ran it through a CT scanner" at the University of Chicago Medical Center to gather data for the printer.
The move to Chicago has also raised Graslie's profile in the scientific community, and she's grown into her role not just as a host but as an advocate for science education—and particularly for women in science. Her largest audience is women between the ages of 13 and 18, she says, "young women who have always had an interest in science and are starting to wonder if they should take it more seriously. If I was that age watching my show, I would want that reassurance—that what I was interested in was cool, that people would still like me and think I'm funny even if I'm into weird gross stuff that nobody else was talking about."
Claire Hopkins, who graduated from the University of Vermont last year with a joint degree in botany and English (and just began work for a master's in museum studies), has watched Graslie since her first appearance on Vlogbrothers—and was immediately moved by her. "The Brain Scoop really played a key role in solidifying my aspirations to work in museums," Hopkins told me in an e-mail. "I've always loved science and museums, but never really thought about museums as a potential career path. What science truly needs is visible women in science, and Emily never fails to encourage her viewers, men and women alike, to be engaged and ask questions about the world around them. People are turned off by the ivory tower of science, and Emily shows that it isn't an ivory tower, that women can do science and that they should do science."
It was with this audience in mind that Graslie wrote the November episode "Where My Ladies At?," in which she addresses the "frustratingly negative and sexist comments that I have to sift through in my various inboxes on a daily basis." In the episode, her producer reads comments she's received that discuss her body, whether she's hooking up with her show's guests, whether her glasses are sexy enough, and why she doesn't wear more revealing clothing.
"It's hard to feel like I'm putting all this effort into something and then being seen as an object of desire or an object at all," she says. "I want to see more women in science and more women educators on YouTube, so we've got to tackle this together, and it starts by recognizing that there's a problem, and it's a problem that's going to deter a large number of people who would be interested in doing this."
The episode was reported on by everyone from Glamour and Jezebel to NPR and The Daily Mail, and has gathered 758,000 views—more than twice as many as her second-most-watched episode. "We need to make sure we're making it possible for people of all genders to feel acknowledged for their contributions and not feel held back by something as arbitrary as their genetics or appearance," she says in the episode. If she's going to inspire young women to pursue the sciences, she says, she wants it to be a safe place for them.
I ask her if she feels prepared to be a feminist science icon. "I don't. I don't feel prepared. I didn't have my shit together," she says, and then, "bleep that out because I'm supposed to be a good role model." She thinks that the best way for her to advocate for women in science is "just by doing it, just by acting in the position I am, continuing to do what I'm doing."
As Green explains it in an e-mail, "I think the bigger impact will be on the next generation, people who see [that] Graslie's work as a creator, a communicator, a comedian, and a scientist makes it clear that science is not the opposite of the humanities. We're all creators in our way."
A man who works in the museum gift shop told Graslie one morning that he thought she could be a revolutionary force for women in science, and was proud to work in an institution that supported her. As we were walking through the Evolving Planet exhibit, a man recognized her and said, "The Brain Scoop! Very educational, down-to-earth. You're not boring—you're very interesting."
Graslie says she gets recognized regularly. "I kind of live my life at this point as if there's always somebody watching. If I was in public, I would want the way that I'm acting to be a good reflection on not just the museum but on YouTube, on people, on celebrity. I want the person I am in a conversation to be the same person that people are seeing on YouTube. I'm not an act. I'm not an actress."
Her favorite episode, she says, is "Most of a Bear," filmed in April in Montana. "We went hiking up this mountain in the snow looking for the rest of a bear," she says. The skull had been found earlier in the year, when weather didn't permit collection of the entire skeleton. "It was a really good day in my life when we went up there and got that bear and hiked back down. All we had were some gloves and some trash bags. And then we threw the bear in the back of a car and went and got pizza and beer. That was a good day."
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that both Emily Graslie and Claire Hopkins pursued degrees in museum studies, not museum science.