"It doesn't look like it would do very well in the water," Emily Graslie is saying, dryly.
The Field Museum's first ever Chief Curiosity Correspondent is standing in front of a skeleton of an extinct giant lemur, mounted in a glass case in a back hallway of the museum.
With her are Field mammalogist Steve Goodman and visiting scholar Bill Jungers, who've both done work on giant lemurs in Madagascar. Jungers has just finished telling her about an Italian paleontologist who theorized the lemurs were part aquatic, and Graslie, looking at the skeleton, is agreeing with Jungers that this was a "crazy" way of thinking about the animals.
With Graslie, also, is cameraman and collaborator Michael Aranda. It was through video, the YouTube science series "The Brain Scoop" by Graslie and Aranda, that she first came to the Field's attention. Now she's on staff, with a little office and a lot of freedom as one of the most radical hires that has been made in the relatively staid world of Chicago museums.
The Museum of Science and Industry has had amateur science enthusiasts come live in the museum for a month and explain its workings to people. But in the 24-year-old Graslie, whose YouTube show built a following especially among girls and young women, the Field has taken the desire to change the paradigm even further, encouraging the "Brain Scoop" star to, in essence, wander its back halls and showcase them for a young, web-video-watching public.
Hence the job title.
"They asked me, if I had a title, what would I pick?" Graslie says, "and I was, like, 'Master of Awesome in Everything I See.' And they kind of whittled it down to Chief Curiosity Correspondent. It just kind of tells me they respect that we're quirky.
"Museums, they can be very traditional-minded, like 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Graslie says, crediting her new employer for its daring. "But honestly, it is broke."
Museums have been battling just to maintain attendance, year to year. The Field has been especially hard hit by budgetary problems that have forced staff cutbacks. And staying in the public mind in an era of burgeoning distraction, of competition for people's time and money, becomes ever more difficult.
Bringing Graslie and "The Brain Scoop" — with 140,000 subscribers and the subtitle "Adventures in Taxidermy, Biology and Natural History" — in house is an attempt to combat that. "Mostly I just want young people to become invested in their natural history museums and understand they're inheriting the past to give to the future," she says. "It's a passing of the torch."
The museum couldn't have made a better choice, says Hank Green, the YouTube star (and brother and YouTube collaborator of celebrated young-adult novelist John Green) who essentially discovered Graslie, when she was a full-time volunteer at the University of Montana's zoological museum.
"Her passion existed in this, like, really incongruous place," Green says via e-mail. "She's quirky and always well-dressed with intricate little braids in her hair and then suddenly she's yanking the skin off a dead rat or explaining why birds rot differently than mammals or sharing the story of the time she punctured a mustelid's scent gland. She defied my expectations, her passion is infectious, and she's just ridiculously smart and dedicated."
She is, also, intensely, unashamedly curious. In one of her videos, she issues a loud, wondrous, "What!?" four times in succession. Speaking to Goodman, the mammalogist who spends most of the year, and has spent most of his career, in Madagascar, she says, "That's your entire life, that's what gets me: 26 years! I'm 24. He's been in Madagascar longer than I've been alive."
Graslie grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, and in college at the University of Montana earned a BFA in studio art. She started volunteering at the university zoological museum to practice for what she thought might be a career in scientific illustration. But her time there awakened the passion for science that she wants her show to pass on to other girls and young women.
Her workspace decorations, in addition to the stuffed raccoon that gets a cameo in "Brain Scoop" videos, include letters from girls who say she's inspired them. And at a recent video conference, she says, girls would actually come up to her crying because of how much the example had meant to them.
"I know how they feel," says Graslie, "because I graduated with an art degree. I don't have any background in science because I had the same mentality — like, science isn't for me. It's going to be too difficult. It's not in my future."
It entered her future, last July, in the guise of Hank Green. Green visited the Montana museum to shoot an episode on vertebrate skeletons in his series "Crash Course" . He was impressed, he says, by Graslie's "infectious" excitement about the subject matter.
When he returned to the museum a few months later to shoot again, Graslie gave a tour and Green proposed that she do her own show. "Something that Hank always told me," she says, "is this show is as much about biology and natural history as it is about one person's personal journey. It's kind of a personal transformation journey."
Indeed. The first "Brain Scoop" episode went up in January and quickly drew fans, including a Chicagoan who offered to pay the show's way to the Field to shoot at the annual members' night, which opens up much of the backstage collection.
This was in April. Graslie and Aranda thought they were coming to shoot a few episodes. But they got red-carpet treatment, and Graslie says she was stunned to discover people at the Field knew who she was.