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The Tale of The Brain Scoop with Emily Graslie

October 20, 2015

 

We love Emily Graslie and her awesome, amazing science YouTube series, The Brain Scoop! We jumped at the chance to interview her for Tumble (and jumped up and down a little bit when she emailed us back - not kidding). 

 

A short warning: The Brain Scoop videos and blog sometime feature dissections and other things that might be considered "gross." Each video features a "Gross-o-meter" before the content. We felt that because Emily shows a side of science you might not otherwise see, it's worthwhile to share her experience. But if you're squeamish about dead animals, stick to the videos with scientists! Like this one.

Emily is a science communicator. A science communicator is someone who isn't necessarily a scientist (although they can be), who explains science to the public (that's you!). Emily's job title at the Field Museum is "Curiosity Correspondent." That means her job is to inspire curiosity in other people. She's really good at it, too! 

 

In her videos, Emily seems so knowledgable about animals and natural history, we assumed that she was a scientist or something. Turns out, she's not. Here's a slice of our interview. Emily explains how she got into natural history, started the Brain Scoop, and how curiosity can make you a happier person.

 

Tumble: Can we start at the beginning of your science career? Tell me a little bit about your feelings about science when you were in school.

 

Emily:  So I never really wanted to be a scientist. I never was really interested in pursuing science as a career. My mother is a family practice physician. So growing up she worked long hours. Her field of study seemed pretty complicated. It seemed like it would be a lot of work. And I didn’t know I was up for the task. 

 

I decided to study art in college. And I did landscape painting at first. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to visit a small natural history museum we had on our campus that I realized what possibilities existed in the field of science. Especially with biology and ecology. And especially as someone who didn’t have a background in science, and at that point I was a semester away from graduating. So I couldn’t change my major. I decided to do scientific illustration for a semester. From there, I just became more involved with the day to day operations of this small campus museum.  And that’s really how my love of science communication got started.

 

Tumble:  Was there something you feel you got at the museum that you didn’t get in science class?

 

Emily: Yeah. I went to high school in South Dakota. South Dakota is not known for a lot, but it is known as a state that has the lowest paid teachers in the nation. So what you get are teachers not really invested in the classes. You get high turnover. And you don’t get a lot of creativity in those classes or those labs. A lot of the times a biology class would be taught by someone who doesn’t have a background in biology.

 

So when I came to the museum, I actually got to the things you read about, that you see pictures of. You get to see anatomy up close. We got to do dissections and specimen preparation. If I had a question about morphology or the shape of an animal’s skull I could just go there in the collection and look at it myself. So it was really investigative and it was really hands on and interactive, and I think that was missing in the classes I took in high school.  

 

Tumble: Can you tell me how you started writing the brain scoop and shooting the video series?

 

Emily: I was volunteering in this museum in Montana. And the first time I ever prepared that mouse as a study skin and put it in the collection, I felt like I was part of something much bigger. I really wanted to share that experience with anyone who would share it with me. So I started a blog. I was having a hard time connecting with people on campus, and I wanted to connect with anyone who had experience in museums or who maybe would really appreciate being enlightened to world of natural history museums. I started a blog on Tumblr. It was slow going at first. I remember when I got the first hundred subscribers, I was so excited I sent them all a thank you note.

 

Eventually that blog got attention of a guy named Hank Green, who makes educational videos for YouTube, and happens to live in the same city. Which is kind of strange, because we're talking about Montana. There aren't a lot of connections you can make with people doing this stuff in Montana. Hank came to the museum because he was interested in filming an episode about the vertebrate skeleton. We had largest vertebrate collection that side of the Rocky Mountains. So he came to film there, and I just started talking more about my work and what I was interested in doing, and my love for natural history, and how much I wanted to share it with people. So he helped me start The Brain Scoop.

 

Tumble: You kind of got discovered.

 

Emily: Yeah. Yeah, I don't know if it was I got discovered or it was like I insisted. Because he came to museum and I was so eager to share all of this with him. He really appreciated it and thought it was cool. I was like, "Oh we have this over here and then we have this, can you imagine, this is a rhinosaur skull and it's from Africa, and we have it here in Montana!"

He said, "You know what? Let's put you in front of a camera and have you go at it." And that's essentially what happened.

 

Tumble: Was that comfortable for you? Or were you hesitant?

 

Emily: I kind of thought, what do I have to lose? If I do it poorly, that's going to be embarrassing. So I might as well do it right, do it well, do it enthusiastically, and see what happens. I did a little bit of acting in high school, nothing major. But it wasn't  as weird as i thought it would be.

 

Tumble: Through the Brain Scoop, you emanate curiosity.  What does it take to bring curiosity to other people?

 

Emily: I just think people don't ask too many questions of the world around them. I think you get to a stage where you just accept knowledge, you don't actively seek it out for yourself anymore. You assume that everything has been answered, every question has an answer. It's just a matter of going to find it  or having someone tell you.

 

Curiosity, for me, is an insatiable desire to know as much as possible about the incredible world we live in. I think the enthusiasm and self-motivation I have, people latch on to it. And people realize, you don't have to be a super genius or some kind of savant. You can just really ask questions of the world around you, and find answers, and the more you do that enriches your understanding of our world. Understanding that on a fundamental level inspires other people to be curious, too.

 

Tumble: Why should people - especially kids - care about science and how it works? 

 

Emily: Well, science and asking these questions can improve your life.  It can literally make you a happier person.

 

Imagine, next time you're on a hike, you see a bird. You don't know what it is. You have a manual with you and you look it up. It's a Carolina chickadee, and it's different from a Black Cap chickadee just because the Black Cap chickadee has a two part call and the Carolina chickadee has a four part call. Then when you're out in the forest and you hear the two part call or the four part call, you know what it is. It's like finding a friend. It's like discovering a secret about the world. Well, it's not a secret, but it's something you can share with other people and they'll be like, "Huh. I never paid attention."

 

But when you pay attention to things like that, it becomes really important. Because maybe you don't hear it for four or five years. But you go back again and you hear it one day. It's like an easter egg. It enhances your appreciation for that little bird and the little call and how did it evolve a four part versus two part call. aAnd you start to ask questions, and feel like you're a part of something.

 

Tumble: It's like a feedback loop of curiosity and happiness. 

 

Emily: Yeah. It totally is.

This is the episode where Emily meets Hank Green, and the seed is planted for The Brain Scoop!

 

You can visit the home of The Brain Scoop, the world-famous Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Marshall grew up in Chicago and their dinosaurs inspired him to love dinosaurs for the rest of his life. 

 

Have questions? Ask us in the comments below! Or talk to us on Facebook, where we share lots of awesome science discovery stuff every day!

 

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