Before They Were Scientists: Emily Graslie

In addition to interviewing traditionally trained scientists, I sometimes get the opportunity to interview the science communicators that help translate what happens in the lab to the rest of the world. Today’s interview is with the incredible science communicator, Emily Graslie. You may recognize her from her wildly popular YouTube series, The Brain Scoop, now based at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Before we started our interview, with me in Raleigh and Emily in Chicago, we took note of our surroundings. Behind Emily were some familiar surrounds seen in many of her videos. We both clutch our coffee mugs and Emily gets us started:

Emily: I’m in the former Brain Scoop studio in the famous red chair. We don’t film in here anymore, but I do conduct interviews in here.

Lea: How are you feeling? 
[I ask because I know it takes a great deal of courage to talk about middle school.]

Honestly, I’ve never been so nervous for an interview. We are talking about the one thing that I’ve never talked about publicly. Which is the darkest of dark periods of my life that I try every day to forget.

Have you forgotten?

No, not at all, I remember it quite vividly, actually. Sometimes I wake up and say, “Am I 13 still? No?! Good.” I might as well just go for it.

Take me back to middle school. Where were you? Any specific memories that pop out so we can get back there?

I’ll start with sixth grade. I was eleven. I started middle school at South Middle School in Rapid City, South Dakota. My two older sisters at the time had gone there. I felt like my life was over entering sixth grade and leaving fifth grade. I had gone to this really amazing elementary school called Wilson Elementary. I still remember the school song. [Starts singing]

Wilson, Wilson – you’re the greatest

Students, teachers all agree

Working, playing… together

Being the best that we can be

Wilson teaches math and reading

Science, social studies… something like that

Anyways, I loved loved loved elementary school. I’m pretty sure I peaked in fourth grade in Mrs. Renner’s class. In fifth grade I was put in a separate class from all of my friends from fourth grade and it really shattered me. I don’t know why. After that point I couldn’t make friends anymore. I had been pretty popular, but you get to that age where girls are starting to notice boys and boys still don’t really get it yet. Slumber parties stop going from playing pretend to hair and makeup sort of things… and I was not on board. Not on board. I remember getting the puberty talk in fifth grade and going home that night and being mortified that I was going to wake up and have boobs and pubic hair and a period in the morning. I was so afraid of growing up; I did not want to.

To make it even worse, I went to middle school where my sisters had gone and I knew nobody at this middle school. At that age your world is so small, it’s so tiny. I knew a couple people from sports, but otherwise I started brand new at South Middle School in the sixth grade and I [exhales] struggled. I struggled really bad. I made some friends toward the middle to end of sixth grade, but that’s when I started going to the bathroom during lunch and just sitting there. That didn’t stop until I got off campus lunch in high school. That’s setting the stage for you a little bit [laughs], I guess. There are instances and anecdotes here and there, but to fast forward a little bit, I had so many behavioral problems and upsets that I was transferred to “the bad school” in eighth grade. So that’s that photo [see header image]. Yeah. This is going to be great.

I was so afraid of growing up; I did not want to.
My next question was going to be, “Did you ever get into trouble in school?” You kind of touched on that…

I didn’t get detention or anything. I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent. I think the teachers that I had were pretty generous because it was odd behavior coming from me. I didn’t have a reputation for being a violent person, but I was disruptive. I think people saw that I was creative, but I wasn’t being challenged in school, and I was further ahead of my classmates. I had no tolerance at all for popular things. Pop culture, popular music… Weird Al was my idol when I was in sixth grade. Trying to find any 11-year-old girl a group of friends that will really appreciate her love of Weird Al… it was just hard.

I upset the class a lot. I was always pushing the boundaries and pushing my classmates… and pushing my teachers. [sighs] I managed to convince my seventh grade social science teacher that I was colorblind, which was a farce I kept up through most of high school until I started painting and most people realized I wasn’t colorblind. But the reason I did it was because in seventh grade we were still doing coloring assignments. I was outraged because I felt like the last time I had learned something was in fifth grade. That was the last time I really thought I was being challenged and encouraged to do creative things. And then social science class at 12 years old, we had a bunch of crayons… it wasn’t coloring in a map or something for geography, it was coloring a picture of a sunset or something. I was so upset that I said I was colorblind and I couldn’t do the assignment. My teacher had no idea… she was like, “It wasn’t on any of your health forms, we had no idea! I’m so sorry we put you in this horrible position! We’ll give you alternate assignments.” So I had alternative assignments for the rest of the year. I was that kind of person. Willing to go the mile with my lies if it meant getting out of coloring assignments.

I managed to convince my seventh grade social science teacher that I was colorblind, which was a farce I kept up through most of high school until I started painting and most people realized I wasn’t colorblind.
Did your parents know about this? What was their reaction?

I don’t know if they know about the “colorblind” incident. I think my parents got interesting feedback from my teachers. Like I said, I think my teachers saw that I was intelligent and creative and struggling within the system a little bit. They would try to help here and there, but my parents definitely got the brunt of my delinquency. I was decently behaved in school, but at home I was a nightmare. I was so bad to my parents. I was resentful and there was all of this angst and anxiety. I had two older sisters and I have a foster sister now, but she wasn’t legally or officially a part of our family in middle school. I was so close in age to my other sisters that everything was a competition. My older sisters were generally smarter and better at everything, so I resented them… as you do. When my sister, Serri was on the knowledge bowl team and the student newspaper and then you’ve got me… little weird, delinquent Emily. I still feel bad about it. My poor mom.

Another thing about it, too, was that my mom worked so much when I was growing up and, not to put any of this on my mom, because I totally get why she does it now. But that made it challenging, too, because I essentially had a … I’m just telling you everything… we had a very hands-on nanny up until I got into sixth grade. This was a woman who was with us practically every hour of the day, not on nights or weekends but she was our primary care giver. Then she quit because she wanted to do other things with her life. From three until I was eleven I was with this woman constantly and for her to go do something else, it was difficult for me to comprehend… so that was a huge shift, too, for my whole family. All of a sudden they needed to figure out who was going to take the kids to school. They could drop us off, but they couldn’t pick us up. As a result, my older sister Serri and I, when we were in middle school, we had to be a part of the after school program. It was just not a fun thing to have to do. You hate school enough as it is… and now you have to sit in a cafeteria with a bunch of jokers. These poor kids were either delinquents and their parents didn’t pick them up or we were with a lot of special needs kids… it was just a challenging environment. I really let my parents have it because of that. But, what were they going to do, realistically? I had my entire life handed to me on a silver platter up until reality hit and it was just tough. I didn’t react well to it. Oh my god, I’m going to come off sounding like the most terrible person in the world.

Not at all. I know that, myself included, there are a lot of kids who will identify with you and will have the same stories. They’ll have the same understanding of their parents and parents themselves will realize that things can turn out OK.

It took a while, but … I polished up. [she smiles and takes a sip of coffee]

Were there any frustrating rules that your parents had?

Not really. In high school we moved a little further out of town, but we lived in an area where I knew my neighbors but I didn’t have any friends who lived nearby. It’s not like we were off at all hours of the evening. My parents did have a rule that we had to be back inside when the streetlight came on, which was totally reasonable. It gets darker in South Dakota pretty early in the afternoon, so that was probably pretty frustrating.

But, honestly, I didn’t go outside after sixth grade. I don’t know if you could tell how unfortunately pale I am in that eighth grade picture, but I was inside on the computer. That was my go-to fantasy land — the Internet. We got a dial-up connection in fifth grade and then in sixth grade we got DSL. We had totally unmonitored access. My parents were basically like, “The world is at your fingertips, go explore it.” There was a lot of Neopets at first. I still have my Neopets account. My username is something like ChoChangBabe because I was really into Harry Potter. That quickly evolved into going and seeking out anime chat rooms. I spent a lot of time in Pokémon, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z chat rooms because I could actually find people to talk to; I felt pretty isolated at school. I didn’t have a lot of people I could identify with or communicate with very well. Also, I probably came off as very hostile to most of my classmates. Going online and finding online communities was what I did a lot.

Frustrating rules… my parents would make me go to bed at 11:00 at night. They’d be like, “Get off the computer, you can’t eat dinner at the computer.” I’d be like, “Whatever, SailorMars1967 wants to talk to me more.” This was during the AIM days too. I guess they probably would have had more rules if they’d known what we were up to. I don’t think that they cared that we were talking to strange people on the Internet, but I also didn’t tell strange people on the Internet that I was 12 or 13 years old. I think it’s a totally good idea for parents to monitor their children’s Internet activities… good lord.

Do you think the world is better or worse since you were in middle school?

I think that for a lot of the things that I struggled with in middle school … I think there are a lot better resources now to some degree. On the other hand we overmedicate our children too much. My mom’s a physician so she was always very knowledgeable about what kinds of drugs were on the market to treat aspects of quirky personalities. Undoubtedly it came up multiple times if I should be on anti-anxiety or medication for depression or XYZ… I think my mom had a pretty solid approach of just trying to find other avenues for my frustrations. She was really amazing at it. By encouraging me to do art and music — if my mom hadn’t done that for me, it would have been far more challenging. As far as the school system in general, I think school counselors are a little more in tune to what kids are going through these days. My school counselors were a total joke. I remember my sister Serri one time drawing a bunch of heads on her math paper. They weren’t bloody or decapitated, they were just drawings. I think the school counselor saw them, called her in and he was like, “These are very disturbing images.” This was my sister who I just told you was the upstanding citizen. She was a little angsty too, but nowhere near me. I physically wore it on my person. I wore it on my face, I wore it on my clothes; I was all out there as an angry individual. Serri was a little more subtle about it, she wouldn’t be the type to call attention to herself like that. The counselor suggested to her to  draw hearts on her paper with his name in it. What a horrifying suggestion to give to a 12 year old.

I can’t remember having a lot of respect for my counselors, not that I had a lot of respect for anybody at the time. I think, especially, you look at online communities and there’s a lot of support out there. There are a lot of forums, there are a lot of communication freeways that are available and I think the resources are publicized more. I also think it’s more socially acceptable to identify with having a mental illness these days. I’m not saying that it’s not still a stigma unnecessarily, but in general I think societal attitudes are changing. I don’t know, I felt ostracized all the time. I was unhappy and felt like that was not OK.

Did you ever feel like you were the only person like yourself?

Absolutely. I thought I was the one shining unicorn of depression in the world and nobody could possibly fathom my pain. I know I had things to be anxious about. There are still things from my childhood that I’m still anxious about. I’m just an anxious person; that’s just who I am. But I had a really difficult time finding friends or anybody who felt similarly. Which is to say I’m sure they did, I just don’t know if they were as direct about communicating it. I don’t know… doesn’t everybody feel like that to some extent in middle school? You feel like nobody knows what you’re going through, nobody understands you. I think that’s a pretty popular feeling. I think that’s pretty much puberty in general. You think nobody can possibly imagine.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

My parents have always been supportive and encouraging, even when I didn’t deserve it. There were a lot of times I didn’t deserve their love and support; I was a mean kid. I think until halfway through seventh grade I wanted to be a vet. When I was four I told my mom I was going to marry the neighbor guy, not the neighbor boy, the neighbor husband – he was the only other man that I knew of in the world other than my dad. I told my mom I would marry neighbor Greg and live in the upstairs of our house and take care of my parents when they got old. When I was five I decided I wanted to be a farmer. I was going to take care of large livestock animals and do veterinary care for horses. Then I gradually realized that would involve living in a rural area and I didn’t really want to do that. In middle school I wanted to be a vet because I liked working with animals. I think my mom made mention of, “You’ll have to go to a lot of school…” and my impression of school was oh my god I’m going to have to be in middle school forever and that immediately turned me off.

My mom told me all the time that she was in school until she was 30. That’s what you do when you’re a physician; you go through undergraduate, graduate, M.D, residency… it’s a lot of school. I just didn’t have any idea that school could actually be fun. I don’t think I actually thought school was fun well into college. The idea that I would ever pick any life or career based off of how much school I would need was unthinkable to me. I guess that’s why I decided to be an artist. I thought, I can go to school for four years and then I’m done forever… but now I can’t wait to go back to school, I love learning. Once school became more focused on the education and less about the social pressures, it got better. I think that was primarily it, I think I gave up on any science-y type career paths when I realized there would be a lot of education involved.

You mentioned art; what are some connections that you find between art and science?
[immediately] There are an infinite number of connections. I think we’re teaching them the wrong way. We’re approaching the idea of art versus science to kids, which is totally false. There is so much art involved with science and vice versa, just look at the rooms that we’re sitting in right now. We are surrounded by beauty and science [at this point she reaches off camera and grabs a fossil off the shelf] – this is a 63 million year old fossilized pine cone. It’s from our paleo-botany collection. It’s not a pine cone anymore, it’s just minerals, but this is amazing. [holds fossil up to the camera] This is science and art. I see the marriage in that intersection every single day here. I think both things are so intimately interwoven in a way that I don’t know why we teach them separately. I don’t know why there isn’t more scientific information supplementing art education, and I don’t know why we’re not teaching scientists to also have an appreciation for aesthetic beauty, especially as a way of communicating their science. What better way to communicate science than with beautiful imagery or storytelling or any of those things. This is something I didn’t even learn until I was literally three months away from graduating college. I never thought that I could be a scientist. Professionally I’m not a scientist, I have an art degree, but that communication aspect of it and using art to communicate science is so valuable. We should do a better job of teaching that, especially to the kids in middle school. Then they get to be the kids like me that think they don’t want to do science because it looks hard but it doesn’t have to be.

I think both things are so intimately interwoven in a way that I don’t know why we teach [art and science] separately.
What’s been most surprising about being at The Field Museum coming from an art background?

This whole place is full of surprises all the time. I learn something new every time I come to work. I think that’s the piece of my job that keeps me coming back all the time. The potential for discovery. The potential to be at the cutting edge of scientific innovation. That’s pretty awesome, especially when I think, in general, society views natural history museums as collections of old boring dead stuff. But, no – there is so much life and so much discovery in all of this. I learn something new here every day, it’s thrilling.

…[S]ociety views natural history museums as collections of old boring dead stuff. But, no – there is so much life and so much discovery in all of this.
What’s your greatest guilty pleasure about working in The Field Museum?

There’s a lot of my job that is very public, but there is a lot of it that I don’t always feel like sharing. There are images on my phone that will never see social media. That’s my guilty pleasure, not indulging every thing. I know people want to know everything, but part of that is a little bit of self-preservation. Keeping a little bit of privacy. I’m not talking about anything major, it’s not huge secrets. Sometimes I’ll get in touch with the collections manager of invertebrate paleontology and I’ll be like, “Hey, can I come look at some stuff?” We’ll go down there and he’ll show me some amazing specimens spanning millions of years of geologic time. Just to have that meeting where I’m not expected to do anything and he’s not expected to do anything. A lot of what my job has become is coming up with strategic plans on how to involve the public and planning meetings. I understand it’s part of the way that we get things done and it’s an efficient process, but sometimes I just want to open up a drawer and be awed in the glory of the things that we find there. That’s my guilty pleasure.

Do you ever feel like in having to communicate the science and about the scientists and the things that you see at work that there is something that the scientists miss about their work that you notice and talk about?

I think some of them, honestly, miss the value of what they’re doing because it is so hard. That’s what I’m learning at The Field Museum. This is a hard line of work – I can’t imagine, and not that I’ve worked at every place in the world, so I’m just making a generalization, but there are not a lot of fields that are as challenging as natural history museum scientists and biologists. These are people who go to school until they’re 30, they did what my mom did, they did what I was horrified about doing and even when you get done, you can have a PhD in evolutionary biology, you can have published 20 papers before you even defended your dissertation and that is by no means a guarantee that you will get a job doing what you went to school for. There are probably four jobs in the country for you. That is the most frightening reality.

And even once you get here and continue doing research and publishing, your papers that have taken probably decades of your life and multiple trips to various locations all around the world to collect information and so much data and research and maybe 10 people will read it. Ever. So you can imagine, these people get it. They are not unaware of this reality of their jobs. To internalize that information and feel like You know what you’re doing is important, you know that you’re doing it because you love it and you want to shed scientific light on the world. How can you possibly communicate all of that to the public? That’s a huge challenge. I think that can really bog people down and leave them asking, “What’s the point?” It’s hard. [laughs]

What does a huge win look like?

It’s that we can still continue doing it. Despite everything that is kind of working against us in society and lack of priority on increasing scientific literacy in the United States, we still get wins. The wins are so amazing. Because a win is like… there’s this guy, Charlie Engleman. This is my personal win story, I can’t speak for the scientists. This guy got in touch with me a year and a half ago and he was biology student at the University of Michigan and said, “My sister and I make these dorky educational videos and would you mind looking at them? Do you have time to have a Skype conversation about them? I’ve done some episodes in our museum,” (because they have an amazing natural history museum), “And I just want some advice. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate.” I watched his videos and they’re so funny. I thought he was really on point with a lot of his humor. I had a Skype conversation with him and really liked this kid. He was really awesome. We kept in touch loosely over the last year and he emailed me because he was doing this National Geographic video contest. His video, I’ve probably watched it 10 times. His entry was that he and some of his friends wanted to go around the country visiting different national parks teaming with a tree survey company and a rock climbing group so that they could scale up into the canopy and make educational videos from the canopy of these forests and talk with rangers. It was an amazingly done video, easy, not overly produced, it was an honest video it was funny – he’s got a great personality and the mission of his entry was spot on and he won. He won the contest and I emailed him throughout the whole thing. And I promoted it and put it on my social media sites – people came together and he won! He got $50,000 to do this and we’re having lunch next week and I get to meet him in-person for the first time. He’s going to start going around and filming this project. That has been one of my biggest wins this year; not that I feel like I had anything to do with it, but I’m just excited to see this kid realize some of his dreams. Now I’m getting all emotional, but really.

Those are the huge highlights and they happen… I don’t expect the world to wake up tomorrow morning and be like, “Natural history museums are the most important places in the world – everybody we’ve been ignoring them! Newsflash!” I don’t expect that to happen, that’s unrealistic, but the wins are people like Charlie. Or a parent getting in touch with me saying her four-year-old daughter loves my videos and dressed up like me for Halloween and… shares a book that she wrote and colored herself about how she and I went on adventures together. This happened – this girl is named Maggie and her grandpa sends me updates about her. Maggie is a total win. These people are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. Awesome. They have so much hope and so much enthusiasm for science and natural history. That’s a win.

If you could sum up your personal philosophy in one sentence, what would it be?

I find it so unfathomably unlikely that anything at all exists. The cause and effect and the chain of events that had to go in place for the world to be here, for anything to have evolved, for human life to exist, for technology to advance as quickly as it has. That unlikelihood is why I have so much energy. Why I have so much enthusiasm for my life. It’s an unlikely existence and we ought to be taking advantage of it at every opportunity; to figure out what’s out there, to ask as many questions as we can in the limited time that we have. That’s where I get my motivation, too. I don’t know if that’s a life philosophy, but I wake up and I’m like, How do birds fly? I know they do, I know we can have millions of papers published on flight mechanics and physiology and anatomy… but still… birds fly. That’s a crazy thing. Fish breathe underwater… how? Once I realized that it was great to be curious. That would be my philosophy, “It’s great to be curious.” That’s when I really started appreciating life.

It’s an unlikely existence and we ought to be taking advantage of it at every opportunity; to figure out what’s out there, to ask as many questions as we can in the limited time that we have.
I was just going to say, “I think you just defined curiosity.”

“Birds fly, fish swim.” – Emily Graslie, life philosophy [we both laugh]

If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?

Don’t hate. Don’t hate. I’m guilty of so much bad energy from my middle school years. I know it’s probably difficult for people to imagine me as that person. I was just so resentful of my classmates, of my parents, of my teachers, of my family. I took out a lot of my own insecurities on other people in the form of mean things, bad attitude, I was a Debbie Downer… I told people that school was stupid at every opportunity. I just had this totally misguided, misinformed view of things. I think if I could go back now, I would just try to be kinder. Try to understand that everybody is going through something all the time. There is no way for you to know what kind of experience someone is having, what they do when they go home at night, if they have a home to go to. Nobody’s family is perfect, nobody’s life is anywhere near perfect. I think if I would have been just a little more accepting, I would have had a much easier time.

Do you think your middle school self would have take that advice?

Oh, no… she would have said, “What the hell do you know?” My middle self would hate who I am now. She would be like, “What a sellout.” She hated everything. Middle school Emily was awful. The only things she didn’t hate were the color black and Sailor Moon. Those were the two things that middle school Emily cared about in life. And playing PlayStation games and eating Reese’s Pieces. That was me. I don’t know if I would have done it any other way, though. If I had been in the right class in fifth grade, if I had gone to the middle school where I knew people… what would have happened then? I probably still would have had the same struggles because I just think it was in my physiology, it’s my chemistry. It would have predisposed me to that. It was a hard road to go down, but it was a good one. I learned a lot of life lessons.

Are there any discoveries that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

I don’t know if she would have hated me… I think that she hated everything. I talk about this person… but I owe them nothing. That’s something that Hank Green has said that I’ve really clung to. He said, “You don’t owe your former self anything, you’re not that person anymore.” So I talk about her as if she’s different, she’s not me. I think she would be pretty impressed with what I’ve been able to pull off. I think she would have been a little bit like, “Good. Screw the system, you don’t follow conventional paths, go you!” This life trajectory where I did what I wanted and I was done doing that and figured out what I wanted to do next and made it happen. Obviously there is a lot of luck, and chance and seizing opportunities and guidance along the way – I didn’t pull this off all on my own, by no means. But I think she would have been impressed by the resourcefulness of what I’ve done. I think that would have been a pretty interesting discovery. The fact that I could discover this line of work.

If you could have any superpower what would it be?

I wouldn’t want invisibility. People who want invisibility are up to no good. They either want to peep in people’s windows or steal stuff from their houses or rob banks. Invisibility is out. If somebody could give me a good, honest reason for why we’d need invisibility I’d appreciate that. I wouldn’t want mind reading. Hell no. I would not at all want to go into somebody else’s mind palace — I know I wouldn’t want that done of me. I think… Time travel. Does that count as a super power? I’d love to go back and see what Europe was like… provided I don’t get the Bubonic plague. Go back into the Renaissance and see what was going on. Just use it to travel around the world and see different thing. Go back to Precambrian worlds and watch eukaryotic cells do what they do. I want to see a Dimetrodon. Hang out with some early Synapsids. I want to watch things evolve in sped up time. I think that would be pretty cool. I think that would be really amazing. I want to see a dodo bird. I want to watch them. Nobody knew what they did, what they looked like. The same goes for so many other amazing creatures. I’d go back in time and slap the crap out of 13 year-old Emily.

Poor 13 year-old Emily.

She had such a tough time.

How is the outreach that you do different than what you would have seen when you were in middle school? How do you think that what you do encourages girls to get into science?

I think it goes back to my misguided notions to what people were. I assumed you were either popular and cool and therefore boring, or if you liked fashion that meant you were dumb… those kind of generalizations. I just had a very negative outlook on women. My mom is my hero, and she is an amazing woman. She graduated with a medical degree and came from a one-room schoolhouse until she was in middle or high school and grew up in a single-parent household in rural South Dakota and she overcame a lot to be where she is. What an amazing thing, and then she has four beautiful daughters that are all successful. A great house and a blossoming garden… and I hated her in middle school and I thought she was the worst. The worst thing I told my mom was that she was stupid. I said she didn’t know anything. My mom is the most intelligent person I’ve ever met; she’s awesome. I got that impression because she had to make sacrifices. She couldn’t be at every soccer game, but she tried. She did anything in her power to be there whether or not we were deserving of her attention, but she provided it.

I got that impression because we just don’t make accommodations for women who want to have families and women who want to have careers in science. We aren’t allowing them to have maternity leave, we’re not allowing them to have enough time off. My mom had my sister, Serri, and brought her to work a week later. She might have taken off a week or two. Obscene. She just had a baby – she had just squeezed a nine pound infant (we were big babies) from her body – she should not have had to go to work. That’s what I thought was in my future if I went down a career of science. How awful. Of course nobody wants that. I remember thinking I want to have a family, I want to take my kids to school, I want to be at their soccer games and go to their school musicals and I just didn’t see myself being able to do that if I went into science like she had. That’s awful. I want there to be more positive role models in the media who are women scientists who have been able to strike that balance between family and work life and professionalism. The deeper I get into it, the more complicated the issue is.

People always ask me, “How can we get kids interested in science?” The problem isn’t getting them interested, the problem is prioritizing their interest. The problem is that they think it’s cooler to be popular than it is to be inquisitive. Society just doesn’t support people being literate, we just don’t look at them to be the same class of citizens, almost. You have people on MTV who are these reality stars and that’s who kids in middle school are watching, so kids aspire to be reality TV stars… you don’t want that life. Maybe they have amazing lives — I’ve never talked to Snooki, so I actually don’t know. If you like science, you don’t have to do the 30 year educational path and be a curator – you don’t have to do that. You can still like science and have a balance. You can be a science communicator, you can host STEM events at your school, you can advocate for the Girl Scouts so they have more science programming. There are so many other ways to get people involved and to maintain that interest and to support it. Maybe that’s just watching YouTube videos – when people ask me what they can do, I tell them to share my videos. If they think what I’m doing is good and worthwhile and encouraging… tell people. I can’t go to every house in America and knock on the door… although I would like to try. Have you heard the good word of science? I think by showing that science is fun and creative and exciting; you can still wear cute earrings and be adorable and do hair tutorials and still be seen as a valuable contributing member of society. Shocking.

People always ask me, “How can we get kids interested in science?” The problem isn’t getting them interested, the problem is prioritizing their interest.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’ll be 35. [sarcastically] Psh… My life will be over at that point. I like the way my life is playing out right now. If I can, I would like to continue to do this. I’d like to see where we can push the show. How we can expand it. I want to push myself, I want to push my intelligence, I want to learn more. I want to deepen the value of the program. I want to do more outreach with the museum. There are so many things on my bucket list. I hope I can keep doing it.

Explain the future.

The future of everything? Everyone should be asking themselves this question.

So, you’re time traveling and you put in the wrong digits and now you’re in 2500 instead of 1500.

That’s a crazy perspective because when I considered my superpower to be time travel I only ever considered going back in time. Going forward… that’s weird. Why did I do that? The future… it’s a scary place. I think I’d be more afraid of the unknown future than what we haven’t been able to piece together about the past. Because I would just hate to go forward and get to 2500 and realize our efforts were largely in vain. The rainforests might be gone and the world is peaking at 11 billion people and I’d hate for all of those negative projections to be reality.

I think I’d be more afraid of the unknown future than what we haven’t been able to piece together about the past.
Let’s end on a high note. What was the first concert that you went to?
[laughs] This is a great question. Three Doors Down and I think Incubus opened for them. But this wasn’t the best part of it. The best part of going to this concert was that my mom took me and my sister Serri. I was 11 or 12; and for whatever reason, I thought it would be appropriate for me to go dressed entirely in patriotic theme. So, what this meant was that I was wearing a shirt with an American flag on it, denim shorts and I had red, white and blue sneakers, and I had red white and blue bangle bracelets, beads and I wore a red white and blue visor. That was my first rock concert. I was pretty cool. Awesome. [laughs] Yeah. There’s got to be a picture somewhere. I don’t know where, deep in the recesses of my mind. We were rockin’. Pretty sweet.

Emily Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. She is the wildly successful host of the YouTube series, The Brain Scoop. In her very limited free time she enjoys baking, playing the violin and painting. Follow her on Twitter @Ehmee

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:47+00:00 January 16th, 2015|

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Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

4 Comments

  1. Sean McCann January 16, 2015 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    Great interview! I am glad to know I am not the only Weird Al Fan out there.
    Keep up the good work on the Brain Scoop, I hope you can push it as far as it can go.

  2. April January 16, 2015 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Wow. Thank you for sharing. For one thing, I feel like I can relate to your middle/high school experience a lot. I wasn’t angsty at all, but I was lonely. Looking back I realize that I also forgot how to make friends in elementary school (I still have trouble with that). I followed my fifth grade friends into their friend group in middle school, and it wasn’t until about eighth grade that I realized that I really didn’t fit in with them. So when high school came I tried half-heartedly to find a friend group to fit in with, but mostly just spent lunches in the photography room or the library, or walking laps around the school trying to look like I was in a hurry to get somewhere.

    But beyond all that, I just wanted to say that your passion for what you do and what you love is so inspiring. It never occurred to me before to share the Brain Scoop with my nine year old niece, but now I’m going to. She is so inquisitive and she loves learning, so I’d love to open her eyes to what you do. Keep being incredible, Emily.

  3. rik January 16, 2015 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing what must have been very difficult memories to share. I was not so far from that myself, except didn’t have as supportive a parental environment as you had.

    So glad you turned out the way you are and do what you do!

  4. Donna Comstock February 1, 2015 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    I loved this Emily, thanks for sharing your story. You and your family are in my thoughts so much. Be happy, Donna

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