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Emily Graslie

Science Like A Girl: Science Museum Curator Emily Graslie

Inspiration can come from the strangest moments if you are willing to embrace them. For Emily Graslie, the first-ever Chief Curiosity Correspondent for The Field Museum in Chicago, that inspiration came in the form of severed wolf heads on lunch trays and a dead mouse in a plastic bag. Before encountering those wolf heads, Emily’s college experience had little to do with science. She was an art major who, after a science fair experience at the age of 10, was staying as far away from math and science as she could. She was most of the way through her art degree and trying to figure out what her future might look like. She loved art, but she knew how hard it would be to support herself without a second career.

Then one of the other students working with Emily at the campus convenience store posted some pictures on Facebook: the wolf heads. The album started with severed heads on what looked like cafeteria trays and followed the fleshy process of going from a furry face to a clean skull.

From an artistic standpoint, Emily was inspired. As a person, she was fascinated. Then, less than a week after asking her coworker about the skulls, Emily saw one of her fellow art student’s pieces about the evolution of the feather. “It was the first time I had ever thought about deep time,” Emily said. “It was visually interesting, but it also seemed cognitively demanding.” That student had based her work on specimens from the same museum as the lab with the wolf heads – an on-campus museum that Emily had never seen. Emily found a way to volunteer at the museum. “That afternoon changed my life,” Emily said. She was handed a dead mouse in a baggie and asked if she wanted to prepare it. Emily back-pedaled, arguing that she was “bad at science.” The person shrugged. “Can you prepare a sample?”

Emily learned the careful steps of preparing and preserving a museum specimen as part of a collection for future researchers. At the end of the day, she got to write her name at the bottom of the sample information as the preparer. “Now, I am not someone who typically describes things in spiritual terms,” Emily said, “but I felt more at that moment than I ever did signing my name on a piece of art. I had contributed to something bigger.”

 

That first afternoon led to as many days in the museum as Emily could manage. She used available credits from her art degree to craft a project based on the specimens at the museum. She graduated, and her day jobs went from supporting her art to supporting her work at the museum. For a while, she worked as a prep chef from 6:00 am-10:00 am, spent 10:00 am-6:00 pm helping at the museum, and then prepped vegetables from 7:00 pm-11:00 pm. As much as Emily loved what she was learning, she wanted to share the experience. “I was indignant,” Emily said. “I had spent how many years paying tuition to be a part of that institution without ever knowing such an amazing resource even existed?” 

Image Credit : Emily Graslie
Image Credit : Emily Graslie

Her early attempts to share on Facebook quickly grossed out her family. She shifted to a blog on Tumblr that highlighted not only specimens but also what it was like to work in a small, underfunded museum. Eventually, she was posting five days per week.

One multi-part series about the complex process of prepping an entire wolf clicked with her online audience. A well-known vlogger shot an episode at the museum, and her shameless enthusiasm rocketed it to more than 200,000 views in less than a week. That success led to her own online show.

One viewer from Seattle who shared Emily’s enthusiasm for museum collections wanted to send Emily to The Field Museum in Chicago for a special episode – a look behind the scenes at a major museum with a whole team of curators. Emily called the press office expecting to be blown off, but it turned out they were fans of her work. Emily embraced the trip, even sending out a call for a small meet and greet with her fans at the museum. She had expected a handful of people, but more than a hundred came. Emily unabashedly made the most of her access to such a remarkable museum. By the end of the trip Bill Stanley – Director of Collections for the museum’s 30 million specimens – offered her a job.

Image Credit : Emily Graslie

Emily still works hard, spending many hours emailing and dealing with complications like funding cuts and contract negotiations. But just like the coffee, she used to sell to support her art, and the vegetables she used to chop to volunteer at the museum, she knows that the daily grunt work lets her have the parts of the job she loves so much. And even though her passion for museum collections may have seemed unexpected at the time, looking back at her childhood days storing, labeling, and indexing Beanie Babies with her sister should have given her a clue. And her enthusiasm that some teachers thought was “disruptive” or “too much” – that’s what gets her going at the museum every day. “I think museums are joy-filled places,” Emily said, “and compared to all the negative things in the world, I am going to share that joy with as many people as I can.”

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Read More About Emily Graslie’s Life Here

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Author

  • Amanda is a scholarly publishing professional and science writer. Whether writing articles for interested kids or helping researchers publish their latest books, she has a passion for communicating the latest discoveries to curious readers from college campuses to K-12 classrooms. Her academic and professional careers have pursued a commitment to lifelong learning across the academic spectrum – including a Ph.D. from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science and undergraduate majors in geology, psychology, and German at Bucknell University. She loves writing for SMORE, because every issue is a chance to tell someone else's story – from physicists to podcasters, public health experts to programmers – and introduce the readers of Smore to who they are and what they do.

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