Wikimedia Commons

YouTube star Emily Graslie discussed “The Power of Curiosity” — the topic responsible for her rise to fame among students and science enthusiasts alike — at the Silliman Head of College House on Monday.

To a crowd of around 30, Graslie compared her career to a Jackson Pollock painting — famously messy and disorderly. She detailed her early education in art at the University of Montana in Missoula and her journey to working at a zoological museum during college. Graslie was drawn to the museum after she observed a sculpture by a friend on the evolution of feathers. Immediately fascinated by the natural phenomenon, she accepted a volunteer position preparing dead mice for the museum’s collections by removing their internal organic matter and reshaping the body with cotton and other materials. Graslie described her volunteer work as the launching point for her foray into the sciences.

“For me, that was the moment where something just clicked,” said Graslie. “And I felt such a sense of gratification and also that I had contributed to something so much bigger than myself, in a way that I had never experienced when I signed my name on a piece of artwork.”

Graslie began to draw and photograph the specimens at the museum, and she launched a Tumblr blog where she posted her work to a small and local audience. Her online following soon included fellow Missoula resident Hank Green, creator of famed educational YouTube channels including Crash Course and SciSchow, who contacted Graslie and asked if he could tour the museum’s collections. Green then posted a video of the tour, featuring Graslie, to his already popular YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which he shares with brother and author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green.

The positive reception to the video propelled Graslie’s online fame to a new level, and within two months, she and Green had launched Graslie’s own YouTube channel, The Brain Scoop. The platform allows Graslie to share museum collections with a global audience. As of Monday, The Brain Scoop has attracted 483,514 subscribers.

Soon after Graslie created her channel, she was approached by the director of collections at the Chicago Field Museum. He indicated that the museum needed to enter the digital age through YouTube, to which Graslie agreed. But she had no idea that the message was a hiring pitch, she told the laughing audience. She was later hired as the museum’s “Chief Curiosity Correspondent.”

Silliman Head of College Laurie Santos praised Graslie for her efforts as a young woman at the frontier of science.

“You inadvertently plopped yourself as a really young woman into this very public scene of talking about science,” Santos said to Graslie. “And as another woman in science who sometimes puts myself out there, I know that that’s awesome in many, many ways, but there’s one way it’s not awesome, which is, you get negative comments and not everybody is backing up your mission.”

Graslie echoed Santos’ remarks, explaining how her public online content has led to verbal and sometimes physical harassment. Oftentimes, strangers who recognized her from her videos have approached her. While some were friendly, others left mysterious packages or visited her house. She even had to file a restraining order.

Some viewers have commented that Graslie should wear more revealing clothing during her videos to increase views, while others have suggested cosmetic enhancements.

In 2013, Graslie posted a video entitled, “Where My Ladies At?” in which she suggested that the prevalence of threatening and often sexual comments may contribute to the lack of science channels led by women on YouTube. In a New York Times article this past July, Graslie said she wished her over 200 videos would garner as many views as her video on harassment, which to date has been viewed 948,000 times.

Despite the negative experiences that have resulted from her fame, Graslie noted that her personal mission remains “help other people care about the natural world.” When asked if she had any advice for cultivating a spirit of curiosity in a competitive world, Graslie advised attendees to “question everything.”

Postdoctoral associate in neuroscience Nour Al-muhtasib, who attended the event, said in an interview with the News that she came to see Graslie to learn about certain issues that stem from being, “online, being a woman, [and] being a person of color.”

Another attendee Natalie Troy ’22 had seen Graslie on the Vlogbrothers channel and was drawn to the event by Graslie’s positive attitude.

The Ecuadorian butterfly species Wahydra graslieae is named after Graslie.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu