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Nov. 20, 2014

Q&A With Emily Graslie

by Chau Tu

Click to enlarge images
Emily Graslie’s had a pretty big week. On Wednesday, the art-student-turned-star-science-communicator celebrated the release of the 100th episode of her popular YouTube series, “The Brain Scoop,” which offers a behind-the-scenes look at Chicago’s Field Museum, where she works. The series is also on its way to hitting 250,000 subscribers by the end of the week.
 
“Our channel went live on January 14th of 2013, so it's almost two years old, which is kind of crazy to think about,” says Graslie, 25. “It's been a whirlwind adventure for sure.”
 
The 100th “Brain Scoop” episode will be the first of several about Graslie’s recent trip to Peru, where she and Field Museum scientists trekked through rainforests to collect data on flora and fauna (learn more about the expedition when Graslie joins Ira on the SciFri this week).
 
Most days, Graslie, whose official title is Chief Curiosity Correspondent, finds herself dissecting and analyzing the thousands of specimens in the museum’s vast collection, and sharing her and her colleagues’ scientific work with her loyal Internet following.
 
Science Friday caught up with Graslie earlier this week to chat more about her role at the museum, how she views online science communication, and her version of superheroes.
 
What does the title of Chief Curiosity Correspondent mean to you?
It's pretty open-ended. In some aspects, I'm a full-time science communicator for the museum, but I also do a lot of outreach and education. I “correspond curiosity” using a variety of different media to try and reach people wherever we can. Sometimes that means making Facebook content; sometimes that means making YouTube videos; sometimes that means traveling across the country and participating in conferences where I speak with other science communicators; and sometimes that means going to a public convention where I'm just representing “The Brain Scoop.” There's a lot involved. I kind of do it all.

For your videos, you often have to take complex scientific concepts and simplify them so they’re more easily comprehensible. What’s your approach?
Well, you know, we're all kind of going through it together. I don't have a background in this information. I don't know anything about paleontology or geology or ornithology or anything like that—I’m learning all of this on the fly, too. So I do my best to get the most cohesive understanding of a topic. I go into an idea knowing I have no idea how I'm going to learn this, and from there, as I learn it, I document how I'm learning it—the points and the relevant words and phrases and connections and narrative contextualization that make sense to me. I kind of cut it up, distill it, break it down, and feed it back. It's worked well so far.

Now that you’re at your 100th episode, what do you see next for “The Brain Scoop”?
Oh god, I don't know. I have no idea. I just learned this morning there was somebody who watched one of our videos, and one of her criticisms about it was that it's something David Attenborough needs to be narrating. And my cameraman and I kind of laughed about it, because yeah, well, that'd be awesome if David Attenborough could narrate it! But we're just two people working at a nonprofit museum.
 
But we talk about it a lot—what is the future of this program, and how do we see it expand? We've had really big ideas: We'd love to go on huge expeditions and really try and do the best we can to tell these stories, because they are so important. We'd love to make more videos, we'd love to have more digital content, we'd love to have our own website, we'd love to roll out a whole line of “Brain Scoop”-inspired expedition gear for kids. We have a lot of dreams.
 
What’s been your favorite dissection so far?
It's hard to say. They've all been pretty special [laughs]. I'm a big fan of Hosenose the anteater. It was just weird, unexpected anatomy. Pretty much anytime you take anything like that and you throw it on the lab table, it comes at you with all sorts of surprises. You can look at pictures of them, but it's never really what you anticipate.

Has your perspective of animals changed since you’ve started dissecting and analyzing them for museums?
It totally has, for the better and for the worse. It's kind of, to some degree, erased a bit of my sentimentality when it comes to animals, but it's also given me a more realistic approach to wildlife, mostly because every animal is an individual. As much as we talk about how humans are individuals, animals are also individuals! They have parents; they have grandparents; they are descended from a long line of other creatures of their same species; they live in unique environments. One chipmunk's not the same as another chipmunk—this chipmunk was missing a thumb, or this chipmunk had seeds in its mouth. And you can dissect 11 chipmunks in a row—which we did last week—and each one is unique, and each one has its own challenges.
 
Who are your scientific idols?
I have a lot of science idols. I don't think I could just pick one. I really look up to my colleagues at the Field Museum, and I don't just say that because I'm on staff. I say it because these are heroes without champions; these are superheroes that don't have their own PR committees. These are people who are going out and literally putting their lives on the line—not every day, but at least every year—going on these expeditions, really putting themselves in danger for the sake of knowledge, for the sake of enlightening our collective understanding. So I have a lot of respect for people who do that. And they don't get a lot of accolades, they don't get a lot of attention or glory—not that they are seeking it, but that they're kind of unsung heroes.

Who are some fellow science communicators you look up to?
I think what the creators of the YouTube.edu community have done is really phenomenal. Henry Reich has done an amazing job of distilling physics for the general population, and making it interesting and very succinct—which I didn't think physics could be. Joe Hanson has done a really great job with “It’s Okay to Be Smart” of making contemporary science issues really fascinating.
 
I'm happy to be in the online community that I'm associated with. I think Twitter has done a really good job putting a relatable face to a lot of the scientists that we do work with. Instead of having communicators and having scientists, or having science communicators, you're enabling scientists to be communicators, which I think is incredibly valuable.

Do you have advice for those who might want to go into science communication?
I encourage anybody, if they have an interest in something like this, to just do it. I think we're beyond the point of having excuses of 'Well, I'm not good at videos' or 'I'm not good at production.' To some extent, yeah, you need to have editorial skills and you need to set up a camera and focus it and fix your white balance—those are skills that, inherently, people don't have. But to be a good communicator is to express an interest in your world and also express a mutual interest in sharing that with somebody else. So communication is just as much about listening to people and hearing what they aren't understanding as it is telling them what they should understand. I encourage people to go out there and do it. Get out, start writing articles, start a blog, start a YouTube series.
 
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
 
Listen to SciFri on Friday, November 21, to hear Graslie talk more about her latest adventures on “The Brain Scoop.”
About Chau Tu

Chau is SciFri's web producer. She spends a lot of her time drinking coffee, seeking out street art, listening to music, and defending Los Angeles. Follow her @chaubtu

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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