The Brain Scoop's Emily Graslie wants you to know that science is for everyone

Photo credit: Tom McNamara for the Brain Scoop

Emily Graslie, creator of the Brain Scoop, grew up in South Dakota having adventures in the outdoors.  A visit to her college’s museum with a friend her senior year in art school changed her life. After looking at the specimens, she asked to be their scientific illustration intern. Her enthusiasm for the museum’s collection led to her own youtube channel, The Brain Scoop, which caught the eye of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They hired Emily to be their Chief Curiosity Correspondent, a position created just for her, and she’s been sharing their amazing collections ever since.

Photo credit: Tom McNamara for the Brain Scoop


Where she’s from: South Dakota
Grew up with: mom, dad, and three sisters
Education: Bachelor’s degree in art
Where she lives now: Chicago, Illinois
Growing up she wanted to be: she didn't know
Now she’s: Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum of Natural History and the face of the Brain Scoop

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I liked being outside. I liked hikes, playing in the dirt. I liked poking at stuff on the ground with sticks. My dad and my grandparents had farms and ranches so we’d spend a lot of time playing with horses and ranch animals and looking at snakes and stuff. I was a pretty adventuresome kid, pretty outgoing.

My teachers did categorize me as disruptive at times. That was on a lot of take home notes to mom. I always was full of action, because if the teacher is talking about something, I want to have my own commentary of what the teacher’s talking about, or I feel like it’s an appropriate time to crack a joke to the person next to me. I had a lot of energy.

How did you feel about school?

I really loved school up until about sixth or seventh grade, and then I went to a completely new middle school, didn’t know anybody and had a really hard time fitting in. I was just thrown into this mess of people and I felt completely different.

I had a really hard time adjusting and I became a little moodier. At that point I liked learning but I felt the things that we were learning were far less exploratory than they were in earlier education. We didn’t take field trips any more. We weren’t doing classroom experiments or pursuing curiosity for the sake of it. It was “write down these terms and learn these math facts” and there is no context, there’s only homework. I didn’t take well to that.

How did you channel that energy outside of school?

Running around a lot, making up games with my sisters. We played some sports and stuff, but a lot of it was channeled creatively. My parents really supported the arts and supported us to be creative kids, which is probably how I ended up going into art. When I hit middle school, all of a sudden instead of having positive creative energy, I had negative creative energy, so I was kind of an angst-y, rebellious high school kid.

Were you interested in science? How did you choose to study art in college?

College and higher education is completely different than elementary, middle, and high school in America. But I didn’t know that, so I just wanted to get my four-year degree. I wanted to do something fun. I wanted to do something I feel I’m good at, and I knew I wasn’t good at science because I had never gotten good grades in science. I found my eighth grade report card this winter break and I had a D in science.

Were you still interested in the natural world?

I was focusing on things like our interactions with landscapes, and landscapes are inherently natural, so I kept that alive. I felt always a certain distance between myself and the scientific world, or feeling like nature was part of science. I grew up not really thinking about wildlife biology as a possibility.

A friend of mine in an art class had depicted the evolution of the feather in three images. What a sophisticated topic and here you’ve plainly spelled it out in three images. I saw that she had the same way of looking at the world and learning from the world. I thought if she can learn about these sophisticated science concepts through art and visual queues, then I can, too.

When I first went to the museum, I immediately asked the curator at the museum if I could do an internship in scientific illustration and he was like, “Well, I don’t know why not.” Finding that museum on my campus really opened the door to a new way of interacting with the natural world that I had never considered before, which was literally through its remains, through specimens and artifacts of that natural environment.

Do you remember the first things that you drew at the museum?

I think the first thing that I drew was the oldest specimen in that collection, a European polecat from 1873. Why do we have this old European weasel in a drawer? It gave me a whole new context and another reference point to think about what the world must have been like back then. It’s like a time machine. I started focusing on those specimens and being so amazed by the questions that I was asking myself because I was interacting with them.

How did you transition from telling those stories through drawings to telling them on video?

I have found so many parallels between art and science communication. I’m still using the same approach as I did as an art major when I’m approaching a scientific concept. It all comes down to using different visual and illustrative clues to tell a story, paint a picture with words and narrative. It’s really fun to me to think about the ways we tell a story through an image and the ways that you can construct a scientific story based off of things like characters and place and time and context.

Why did you start The Brain Scoop?

This would have been the job of my dreams. I showed this other YouTube-er, Hank Green, around this museum and just exuded enthusiasm at him for an entire day. That video went up on his channel and it did really well. The audience response was very much, “We want to see Emily on her own channel.” He asked if it would be something I’d be interested in doing and there was no hesitation. It’s so much fun and I’m really glad that I’ve been able to spend the last three and a half years making it happen. 

I was working 70 hours a week trying to figure out a way to make museum communication something that I could do for work. You’ve got to be looking for that job before it shows up as a job opening.

What did you think you were going to do before the videos entered your life?

I don’t know. I was shooting for an end goal but I couldn’t see what it was. Hank Green entered the picture, and that’s the catalyst for starting my video series. But the reality was I was balancing volunteering in this museum full time with a 35-hour a week job to pay my bills. I was working 70 hours a week trying to figure out a way to make museum communication something that I could do for work. You’ve got to be looking for that job before it shows up as a job opening. The whole time I was trying to build up my blog and an online presence and work on my communication skills, even though at the time I wasn’t getting paid to do it.

It was the best thing that I could have hoped to have happened. I thought I’d be lucky to some day get a chance to be a part-time collections manager in a small collection somewhere. I never would have thought that I would have had one of the biggest museums in the world create a position just for me. That’s kind of a wild statement even years later. 

Oprah who has this great quote, and I think she actually stole it from Seneca, but it’s something like, “Luck is what happens when opportunity and preparedness meet,” and I think that kind of encapsulates my situation.

Has your approach changed since you’ve been working at the Field Museum?

Absolutely. When I started making videos, it was as an unpaid volunteer in a small university collection where I had little to no oversight. It’s not like somebody gave me a list of things we had to talk about or the ways in which we should talk about them.

It’s still pretty much an open book, but there are 500 other employees here and the Field Museum is an internationally known institution. It’s fundamentally important to be really cognizant of the fact that I am representing a huge museum. I think we got better at adapting our storytelling approach to the needs of what our scientists require here, which is a way to get their science out there.  

How do you pick what you’re going to feature? How are the scientists at the museum involved?

Sometimes it’s just somebody dropping in my office one week and being, “Okay, we should talk about my new snail research,” and I’m like, “Oh, that sounds great; we’ll do that.”

Sometimes videos take months and months of planning, and sometimes it’s a project that we’re undertaking. For instance, we built a new habitat diorama here at the museum for our striped hyenas that were prepared about 100 years ago. That was a crowdfunding event where we got our entire digital community involved. That took about two and a half years to get off the ground. At any one time we’re working on like five different things because we do want to figure out a way to integrate ideas from people passing me in the hallway but also things that I think would be really good institutional projects, like a new diorama.

A lot of my best ideas come from catching people when they’re not thinking in such a business mindset but instead, “Well, what are you working on?” “Oh, not much, I just described three new species of scorpions this week.” I very much act on a feeling of excitement. I get viscerally, physically excited when I hear somebody talk about their work, and then I have to pursue that as my mode of inspiration. I know if I get that excited about it, then I can help get other people excited, too.

science is not this thing that happens in isolation in labs with only people wearing white lab coats, but science is a part of our community and our lives and there’s room for you in it

Emily at work with a scientist, a specimen, and Soon Raccoon. Photo credit: John Weinstein for The Field Museum

The Brain Scoop has a pretty big audience. Who are you trying to reach?

The people we’re really trying to reach are young people who aren’t quite sure with what they want to do with their lives. They want to do something and they want to be a scientist, or maybe they’re more artistic but they want to contribute their artistic talents to supporting the natural world. The reason that we highlight scientists from so many different backgrounds of different disciplines, different ages, different genders, different races, is we want to paint a more realistic depiction of who a scientist is and what a scientist does, to show that there are opportunities in these fields for anybody, no matter your skillset or your background.

I think providing opportunities for people with all different kinds of backgrounds is really what we’re trying to do with The Brain Scoop, to show that science is not this thing that happens in isolation in labs with only people wearing white lab coats, but science is a part of our community and our lives and there’s room for you in it.

I think that’s what gets me so excited about it is that I thought maybe this world was closed off to me, but I found a way in and I found a need that needed to have been met, and I feel purposeful and that’s the best.

What’s an example of a recent video you’ve really gotten into?

The story about Ruth Harkness was one that really gripped me. I’d known about this panda that was on display for as long as I’ve worked here, but until I picked up this book and read more about the woman who went and brought this panda back to the United States and her unlikely story of being a party girl flapper and then going into the wilds of China and doing this whole expedition. Her narrative was really compelling and I like those kind of stories, so it would be a unique opportunity to give some of our visitors to know more about a specimen that it’s just too easy to walk by and not think about in the museum. 

Who else makes The Brain Scoop happen?

Our media team. I have one full-time editor/cameraman, Sheheryar. He started working back in March, and then we work with Brandon Brungard who also works on other YouTube shows in the education sphere, like Art Assignment and Crash Course, and he’s a phenomenal editor. He’s been working on our team for about a year now. So it’s two full-time and one part-time person and we are The Brain Scoop.

Another thing I really love about my job is that I get to work with communications staff and PR, but I also get to work with our fundraising staff, and we can use our videos not just for the public but also for our internal know-how. I think it helps everybody in our museum to know what’s going on and to have unique ways to showcase the kind of work that happens here. 

What fills your time outside of work?

Why, nature, of course! I work a lot and I pour a lot into my job because I really love it. But even when I’m outside of work, I’m still doing things that somehow relate to work. I spend a lot of time in nature. I like to hike and I like to run and I like to go to the park and watch toads.

I spend so much time in front of a computer and when I work in a fast-paced area like YouTube, it feels constantly like you have to keep up all of the time. Spending my time outside of work hanging out with my cats, going on a walk, it’s a good use of my time.

Emily reporting from her desk at the Field Museum. Photo credit: Sheheryar Ahsan

What would you tell somebody who is a kid like you when you were in high school or junior high?

I think about that comment, disruptive, a lot. It’s really ironic to me that growing up it was seen as a bad thing and now I have a lot of people calling me disruptive but in a good way, like, “Emily, it’s good you’re so disruptive for this environment.”

Don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you if you don’t feel like you fit in. Middle school and high school feels like an eternity, and then all of a sudden it was over and then in a blink of an eye college was over and then in another blink I’ve been at my job for three years. My sense of time and perspective of time has completely changed.

Just hang on. Find the thing that makes you happy, that you enjoy doing. Focusing on the things that bring you joy is one of the most fundamental things you can do when you’re a growing, developing person.

What would you tell somebody who wants to create their own career, since you have a job that didn’t exist before you started doing it?

I was working toward the job I wanted. I did invest a lot of energy into a job that I hoped would happen some day, but also understanding that I could be flexible if it didn’t.

The job that I had when I was volunteering at the museum was as a baker and a prep chef, and it wasn’t demanding in any sense. But I had this massive industrial kitchen to myself for 35 hours a week, so I could just put on a book on tape and work by myself for seven hours a day cutting tomatoes. That job afforded me the mental space to formulate a plan for what I wanted to do.

While I was spending so much intense time focusing on museum stuff and not knowing where that was going to lead me, I also had this part of my day where I could just give myself mental breathing room. From the outside it might have looked like I didn’t know what I was doing or I was investing too much time into one thing without having a solid goal, but man, it worked out, so I have no regrets.

How does your life today compare to the life you imagined you would have as an adult when you were a teenager?

Oh, my God. I have the life of my dreams. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with myself, but it wasn’t anywhere near this. I didn’t have incredibly high expectations for myself. I couldn’t imagine myself working a nine to five. It’s kind of the reason I went to art school, right? I do have a nine to five job but this job really allows me to do everything I could have ever hoped to do. I think middle school, high school Emily would have been pretty pleased with herself, pretty excited with how everything turned out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Emily loves and find out more about her!