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Emily Graslie, a 2011 University of Montana graduate, who now serves as the chief curiosity correspondent at Chicago’s Field Museum will be recognized during its 19th annual “Odyssey of the Stars – A Celebration of Artistic Journeys on Saturday in the the George and Jane Dennison Theatre. Graslie earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from UM, drawing inspiration from the Phillip L. Wright Zoological Museum’s vertebrate collection. 

Quality and creativity matter more than numbers to Emily Graslie, the "chief curiosity correspondent" at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Yet some numbers are important in describing her one-of-a-kind position. She has access to the millions of artifacts in the museum collection and its world-class scientists and researchers, whom she taps for YouTube videos where she explains often complex topics in a fun, engaging way.

In the highly competitive world of online video, her channel Brain Scoop has racked up nearly half a million subscribers and more than 26 millions views in the last six years.

She hears regularly from people who decided to study science because of the channel. Last summer, she was working on a video with high school volunteers.

"One of the kids said, 'I'm really excited to be in your video because I remember watching you when I was in elementary school.' That's bananas. Maybe I've been doing this way too long," she said.

Those sorts of messages, which she receives daily, matter more to her than traffic statistics, or questions about why a video might have "succeeded" or not.

"We're in such a climate and culture where, if, I look at a video and 20,000 people saw it, I tend to think, 'Wow, this video didn't perform very well.' Twenty-thousand people saw it. It doesn't matter what it was about. I mean like, that's a lot of people. That's a pretty big reach. I'm from a city, Rapid City, South Dakota, that has a population of 60,000 people. A third of my hometown saw a video? That's astronomical," she said.

She thinks people need to "recalibrate what success means as creators, as people, as institutions" and make sure it doesn't "dictate or influence the kind of content we create."

***

Graslie came to college at the University of Montana to study a much slower-paced medium: studio art. She's back in Missoula this week as the honoree at the annual "Odyssey of the Stars" on Saturday, which pays tribute to alumni in the visual and performing arts. (See box for more information.)

During her final semester at school, she took independent study credits to draw artifacts at UM's Philip J. Wright Zoological Museum, which kindled a "fierce obsessional level" of appreciation for the natural sciences. After she graduated in 2011 with her BFA, she volunteered at the museum while working at coffee shops.

She didn't have any particular career path in mind, but she "knew that this was a place like I felt like I needed to be, and I wanted to shape my life and my availability to accommodate this collection."

She blogged about the collection and its artifacts, and then appeared in videos by local YouTube science celebrity Hank Green. That led to a job offer from the Field Museum, where she's won awards for her educational efforts.

***

At a panel discussion on Thursday, she said that people routinely imply that she must not be using her degree, but she thinks it informs what she does all the time.

She had to design her own set at the Field Museum, for instance, and do it on a small budget, something with which art students are more than familiar.

When she's making videos, she thinks about lessons from art class about how viewers in a gallery might only briefly scan a piece of art before moving on. That principle applies on YouTube, where "millions if not billions" of seconds of content are being uploaded every day. "And I want you to care about climate change? I have like 5 seconds to get your attention," she said.

As a woman working in an online medium, Graslie has encountered misogyny on a regular basis. (She made a video about it, "Where My Ladies At?" in 2013 that's received nearly a million views.)

She said it's easy for people to say, "ignore the trolls," but "you're talking about the systemic harassment and marginalization of not only women but people of color, and the LGBT community, all of this goes back, it predates YouTube, for sure, but I think we're now at a time where these conversations are happening more broadly and internationally," she said.

Online mediums can allow creators to build positive audiences, and show that the internet isn't always "a Dumpster fire of negativity," she said. Brain Scoop has built an "unusually supportive" audience, and "the vast majority of people leaving comments on our videos are positive."

During the panel, Graslie said that another part of her art training helped ready her.

"Nothing prepares you for that better in an online forum than going through four years of critique in a studio art class, and having your peers just rip you to shreds," she said.

On the panel, they discussed the importance of "interdisciplinary" thinking, i.e., having many passionate interests.

Thinking broadly is important in her new career, where she had to teach herself myriad new things: writing scripts, condensing scientific concepts, how to present yourself on camera, and more. And since she started, she's had to adapt constantly.

"Online video is still a baby medium," she said, and even in her six years everything has changed, including the volume of video online and how algorithms help creators make money off their work.

She said that the key to making ideas digestible to the public comes down to audience: "Who are you trying to reach with this material and how can you relate to them using the language that they can understand?" she said.

For instance, a few years ago, she and her team wanted to make a video about the concept of species.

"We talk about species all the time, and when we were in high school we learn this pretty narrow definition that a species is any two organisms that can interbreed and give birth to fertile offspring, right? So a donkey and donkey can breed and give birth to a donkey. A donkey and a horse breed and they give birth to a mule, and a mule's infertile, so a mule's not a species," she said. "That's a pretty narrow definition of what a species is. Depending on what kind of scientist you are, you might use 26 different biological species concepts, and that's a lot."

They made one video that was more complicated, geared toward late high-schoolers or early college students. They knew it wasn't going to get that many views, so they made a complementary version called "The Taxonomy of Candy," in which four different scientists explained the idea with Skittles, M&Ms, and more.

"Are Skittles related to M&Ms? No. But what about the red Skittles and the red M&Ms, could those be related? What criterion are you using to group these things together? That video did really well," she said.

Graslie currently has her largest team ever — a full-time editor/cameraman and a production assistant who helps with research and writing. She reports directly to the museum's president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, and the museum's scientists and researchers bring the team ideas for new videos.

"It allows me quite a bit of creative and intellectual freedom. But ultimately, I want to create content that our research and science staff think is meaningful material to communicate forward to a broader and international audience," she said.

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