by Madeleine Nesbitt
In his recent Fireside Hangout, President Obama talked about taking the initiative to interest girls and women in STEM careers, where women are extremely underrepresented. A step to getting more girls interested in these kinds of careers is having examples of modern women in these fields. One such woman is the cooler-than-cool Emily Graslie of the new YouTube channel The Brain Scoop. Emily works at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum in Missoula, Montana as Curatorial Assistant. She appeared in the Vlogbrothers video “Thoughts from Dead Animals” with Hank Green and Michael Aranda in December of 2012, and enthusiastic viewer comments on that video suggested that Emily start her own channel. Now writes and hosts videos for The Brain Scoop, where she documents her experiences at the museum, from skinning a wolf to making discoveries in the wet specimen collection. She agreed to chat with me about her channel, among other awesome things.
Madeleine Nesbitt: On Tumblr, you said that you wanted to be a role model, especially to young women. Who were some of your role models when you were growing up?
Emily Graslie: As I’ve gotten older, my mother has become a significant role model for me. I’ve learned to respect and appreciate the obstacles she had to overcome in order to be where she is today in her professional life, working in a very male-dominated field. While I was growing up, though, I was hugely inspired by Jane Goodall: her work was my first exposure to not only a person working in the field with animals, but that she was a woman was very inspiring. When I was in about third grade she came to our town and gave a lecture about her research and at the end she answered some questions from the audience. I rose my hand timidly. She called on me in this ocean of thousands of other people, and I remember asking her some silly question about how many chimpanzees she had worked with over the years. She humored me. It was definitely a highlight of my young life and I’ve never forgotten it.
What makes you so excited about the work you do at the museum?
I feel very privileged to work in the museum; when our curator Dave agreed to supervise my internship I felt as though I had been granted an incredibly unique and very special opportunity, which it certainly was. I took it very seriously and made up my mind that I was going to take advantage of working with the collection as much as possible. The more I became involved and invested in the museum, the more I felt attached to it and responsible for its future. Seeing it get so much attention and recognition is kind of like the equivalent of a parent getting their kid on the honor roll, or picked for a scholarship or something. I’m very proud of our museum and seeing this hard work ‘pay off’ in a way is humbling and gratifying.
Shortly after The Brain Scoop debuted, you responded to some comments about your clothing on your personal Tumblr. How did you feel about having to deal with that kind of comment?
I was shocked, definitely. I had gotten such a positive reception up to that point, that when I appeared on SciShow News in front of an audience that was enormous, one that didn’t know who I was and some who didn’t care either way, it was kind of a reality check. My subscribers on YouTube and followers on Tumblr are very kind to me and supportive, so experiencing such insensitive comments was definitely a part of the learning curve, and kind of burst my naive bubble. I had been warned that these types of comments would come, but for some reason I hadn’t anticipated that the comments would be about my clothes not looking ‘sexy enough’. That thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
What are some of the benefits and pitfalls of being part of the YouTube community?
The benefit is definitely global exposure for our museum, and the feeling as though I’m making a difference in how people view their local museums as places of incomparable inspiration and infinite learning possibilities. I’m in the Johns Hopkins University MA in Museum Studies program so we spend a lot of time talking about museums and their relationship to the public, especially now when everyone is so technologically driven, and how we can take advantage of the Internet’s potential to get people to invest in these museums. We want people to know that museums belong to them as communities, and we all need to take care of our local and national museums. My favorite comments to read from YouTube and on my Twitter come from those people who say things like “I was inspired to visit my local museum because of your channel!” It makes me feel as though I’m making a difference in that regard.
The pitfalls I’ve run into have been mostly personal dilemmas. It’s hard putting yourself out there. I want to share enough of myself so I can relate to my audience — I WANT to relate to my audience — but occasionally I will receive an unsolicited comment that makes me feel very vulnerable, and reminds me that not everyone is genuine in their intentions to know me. I think people forget I’m a real person who comes home and makes dinner, takes care of my cat, does homework, vacuums the carpet, does laundry. I’m sure I will get used to the transition in time, but it happened very suddenly so I’m still settling into my life as a ‘public figure,’ if that’s what you want to call it.
What do you think about the expanding educational community on YouTube?
I think it’s phenomenal, and I am so glad to be a part of it! The educational channels on YouTube are fantastic. I wish they had been around when I was in high school — maybe I would have taken more math or physics classes if I had MinutePhysics or ViHart to watch back then. These channels do a great job of explaining complex concepts in ways that can sometimes be lost in the classroom, and by providing them online it gives people the ability to access them on their own time in the comfort of their own home.
YouTube educational channels are doing an amazing job of making learning cool and fun, motivating, and inspiring. The community established because of it is also incredible: people have the ability to share with one another what they’ve learned. They are continuing the conversation outside of the classroom — in some cases these are people who are out of high school or college and just needing a way to feel as though they’re still learning and growing. I could go on all day about how awesome I think it is.
In your video “Recommended Reading,” you told the Internet about some of your favorite books. What, then, are your favorite websites?
PopSci.com is my favorite website; I could spend all day going down the popular science wormhole. I check into NPR.org daily [ed. note: Emily was featured on one of NPR’s blogs! Check it out here], and go to globalmuseum.org at least once a week to get caught up on all types of museum news. And, I browse reddit.com as my Internet junk food (although there is good content there…sometimes).
What advice do you have for young women who want to go into science?
I would encourage them to follow their passions entirely and completely. When I was in high school I felt as though science was a bit over my head; I don’t know if that’s because I was a girl, or just because I didn’t believe in myself, but whatever the case I really wish I had followed my gut at the time and gone into the field early. Never let anyone make you feel as though you need to fulfill an alternate agenda if what you really want is an education.
You can watch all of Emily’s videos at The Brain Scoop, but here are some of my favourites: