The first time Emily Graslie visited the University of Montana’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, she was handed a Ziploc bag containing a dead mouse specimen to prepare for a collection. After sewing up the mouse, she signed her name de ella on the label as the preparer and felt a familiar sense of gratification come over her, the same feeling she got from signing her artwork de ella.
“That mouse is the reason I’m here today,” Graslie said. “I walked out of the museum and my life changed forever. I knew I needed to be a part of natural history in any way I could. That is the reason I’ve traveled all over the world talking about science for the last decade.”
On Friday, Sept. 16, the University Center Theater welcomed Graslie, one of UM’s most high-profile graduates, back to Missoula to give a presentation on her life’s work as a science communicator and educational media producer.
Graduating from UM with a BFA in painting, Graslie never thought about pursuing a life in science until she discovered UM’s Zoological Museum in the fall of 2010. After seeing a friend’s Facebook post of a severed wolf head on campus, titled “A normal day on the job,” she wanted to know where on campus this was considered “normal,” and her curiosity led her to the museum doors.
“As an artist, walking in there, it was like a whole world that I could just play and explore, and there was so much good visual material,” Graslie said.
After her first trip to the museum, Graslie started telling everyone about the collection. She volunteered at the museum and gathered some of her friends from Ella to create a taxonomy art show in the UC Gallery. At this time, Graslie was also using her job de ella at the UC Market to her advantage de ella, turning it into a platform for public outreach.
“I had a badger skull under my counter at the UC Market,” Graslie said. “So when people would come through buying their coffee, I would pull it out and be like, ‘You guys want to see a badger skull?’”
Graslie stayed in Missoula after graduating in 2011 to help with the museum and bring awareness to pressing issues other museums were experiencing. After starting a natural history video blog, she uploaded a photoshoot she did with the Kaimin, featuring pictures of the collection. Eventually the page caught the attention of Hank Green, one of YouTube’s most popular science educators and also a UM graduate.
“Hank reached out and was like, ‘I got this new series coming out, it’s called ‘Crash Course,’ can we come film at your collection?’” Graslie said.
While working with Green on the first few episodes of “Crash Course,” now one of the most watched educational series on YouTube, viewers were quickly drawn to Graslie’s energetic personality. Fans started commenting how they wanted Graslie to have her own show from her and with Green’s agreement, they co-founded “The Brain Scoop.”
The UC Theater filled with laughter and admiration as students listened to Graslie’s presentation. It’s easy to see how she won over “Crash Course” viewers in 2012.
Kallie Moore, who has been the collections manager at the museum since 2008, believes that individuals like Graslie are able to create a largely positive impact on the future of science communication.
“Science needs non-scientists, if anything I know, it’s that,” Moore said. “The importance of having someone with high energy makes these talks a lot of fun. It’s rare that you come to these talks and have such a good time, and I think that’s what makes science more accessible.”
Graslie had only been working on “The Brain Scoop” for three months when a fan of the series paid $4,000 for her to fly out and film behind the scenes of the Field Museum in Chicago. On the trip, she got a job offer from the Field Museum to be the first chief curiosity correspondent, which she accepted and worked for the next seven years. During her time in Chicago, she made more than 200 videos for “The Brain Scoop,” which together have collected more than 33 million views on YouTube and continue to receive around 250,000 views each month.
In 2019, Chicago PBS came to Graslie and asked if she had ever considered making a TV show. More than 100 people bought-in, including museums, tribal agencies, universities, and BLM offices. She self-produced a three-hour broadcast series in 2020 called “Prehistoric Road Trip,” about paleontology in the American Midwest.
“We worked with so many different types of organizations and that was the point,” Graslie said. “We wanted to demonstrate that if you’re interested in paleontology, it doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you are. There are ways that you can be involved.”
Since “Prehistoric Road Trip,” Graslie left her job at the Field Museum and is now independently producing a new YouTube series called “Art Lab.” She is enjoying taking a step back and experimenting with different ways to interweave her art with science. Graslie said she encourages all college students to be active participants in society and keep their interests as broad as possible.
“People who inspire me are those who are genuinely putting their real selves out there because they see the value in it,” Graslie said. “You just kind of have to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks. Just try a bunch of things and don’t get too hung up if they don’t work.”