Putting the Communication Back in Science Communication: An Interview with the Field Museum’s Emily Graslie
What it means to be the chief curiosity correspondent at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Imagine finding yourself elbow deep in a taxidermied wolf one day, interviewing a world-famous physicist the next day, and working with video editors the day after that. Imagine if your job responsibilities were guided by your own curiosity about the natural world. Imagine if you got paid to ask smart people questions and then shared their answers with an audience of thousands. If you can imagine all of that, then you might begin to have an idea of what Emily Graslie means when she says she is the “chief curiosity correspondent” at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Emily Graslie discovered the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana in the course of looking for a new artistic subject. “I studied art at the University of Montana, and when I started interning there, I was primarily interested in the specimens as subjects for art,” she told me recently. But her curiosity about the collection quickly shifted. Interested not only in the artistic possibilities these strange objects contained but also in the scientific knowledge they could reveal, she first began to blog about the collection, and then, after receiving the attention of Hank Green, an entrepreneur and already-established Youtube educator, documenting her explorations in playfully enthusiastic, deeply informative Youtube videos. Her Youtube channel, called The Brain Scoop, was an instant success.
Less than a year later the Field Museum offered her a job. Now her Youtube channel boasts more than 440,000 subscribers and explores one of the most renowned natural history collections in the world. In videos posted every other week Graslie interviews prominent scientists, documents fieldwork, and offers new perspectives on such topics as taxidermy, dissection, and creatures usually deemed creepy.
When most people imagine a science communicator, a very particular kind of person comes to mind. He (and it almost always is a he) is usually a trained scientist who has become respected and well established in his field before turning his attentions to the public. He might teach the basics of the scientific method (like Bill Nye), or focus on his particular field of study (like Stephen Jay Gould), or advocate for certain political positions based on scientific knowledge (like Carl Sagan). With the notable exception of Neil deGrasse Tyson, he is usually white. And like Tyson, he is often known for advocating and celebrating modern scientific practice as the best way of understanding the world.
Graslie and her approach are a little different. “[Traditionally], the expert is always the scientist,” she says. “That’s not to say that they’re not the scientific expert when we do a video together, but what’s different is that I’m a communications expert. It’s a mutual partnership, where I bring my expertise to the topic, and they bring their expertise to the topic, and it becomes a collaboration between two museum professionals.” Her videos are popular because of her carefully honed communication and digital storytelling skills. “We use our visual medium to show rather than to just tell. . . . Part of the reason we go to such great lengths to pull out specimens for videos is that the specimens help tell the story. And that’s where having a background in visual arts is really what gives me an advantage. I was trained to be a visual communicator, to use visual and narrative cues to help tell a story.”
Her videos often seek to shift the perspectives of her viewers, as in a recent Halloween-themed episode:
“I wanted to approach a topic that is generally thought to be creepy, or gross, or monstrous, and then talk about some more contemporary research that’s being done, and I’d been reading a lot about the conservation of parasites. If a panda goes extinct, all of the unique tapeworms and mites and lice that live on pandas also go extinct. What are the greater ecological considerations for an extinct, unique parasite?”
Emily Graslie represents a new kind of science communication—one that is holistic, centered on conversation and community, arts inflected, and openly curious. Graslie also breaks the mold of science communicators because she is a woman. She herself is eager to point out that there are many prominent women science communicators but that they remain frustratingly invisible to too many people. In a statement pinned to the top of her Twitter profile, she pointedly observes, “I get an email every day from someone saying they don’t know any female science communicators. Please. We’re here.” She has spoken candidly about harassment that she has received for nothing more than being a visible woman on the internet. She also devotes videos to the practical challenges and experiences of women scientists, such as one where she offers straightforward advice for conducting fieldwork while on your period.
Too often the male experience in science is seen as the “default,” but Graslie’s way of communicating science offers a more holistic perspective.
More than anything, Graslie is driven by curiosity. She is, after all, the Field’s chief curiosity correspondent. By framing herself as a communicator of curiosity, not merely of objective science, she has been able to examine the complicated history of the collection of peace medals at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and she often explores the question of how particular specimens end up in natural history collections. “We are all conduits and correspondents of curiosity,” she declared in a 2015 TED talk. Curiosity is a human endeavor; it has a human context. So Graslie’s communication of science has a human context as well.
While Graslie stands out in the field of science communication, there are other artists and writers whose work reflects approaches similar to hers. Two of Graslie’s favorite science communicators are artists who explore science in web comic form: Rosemary Mosco and Liz Anna Kozik. In the world of podcasting Wendy Zukerman, host of Science Vs, is propelled by a Graslie-like curiosity to interview a wide variety of experts in her efforts each week to “prove” or “debunk” social fads and scientific myths, in the process revealing that science itself is messy, laden with contradiction, and deeply human. Artist Eve Mosher made a name for herself turning scientific data—in particular, the predicted levels to which seas will rise in urban areas owing to climate change—into conversation-starting public art. And at The Last Word on Nothing, science journalists write introspectively about the work of communicating science, revealing personal curiosities, biases, and motivations.
Science communicators have long understood the power of telling stories of science. Now, increasingly, many of the most innovative are building conversations around science. Those conversations live in a variety of mediums and take off in curiosity-driven directions. The great scientists of science communication still get the flashiest television specials, the widest audiences, and the biggest paychecks, but the curiosity-driven professional communicators of science, made up of artists, journalists, scientists, and humanists, are having their say as well.