By Ryan Smith, @RyanSmithWriter
9:08 AM CDT, August 19, 2013
Deep in the bowels of the basement of the Field Museum, Emily Graslie peels back the fur of a recently deceased giant anteater to reveal pinkish flesh underneath.
"I think this takes the cake as the strangest animal anatomically I've ever done," she says while slicing into its abdomen with a scalpel.
Soon this 82-pound specimen, a former zoo animal named Hosenose, will be skinned, dissected, stripped of its organs, cleaned and sent off to another museum for study or display. After that, it's safe to say the anteater corpse will become a minor YouTube celebrity. That's because Hosenose is about to guest-star in a future video on The Brain Scoop, a YouTube channel devoted to short educational videos about museum research that's earned more than 140,000 subscribers and 3 million hits in about seven months of existence. Its booming popularity is largely due to the cult-of-personality around Graslie, the bubbly 24-year old host of Brain Scoop whose quirky charm and gee-whiz enthusiasm has suddenly made her the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of taxidermy and other animal-related arcana.
"With the right personality and the right voice, you can make anything interesting," Brain Scoop producer Michael Aranda said. "If Emily wasn't knowledgeable and excited about what she does and if she didn't have a great on-camera personality, none of it would be compelling to people online."
It's this rare kind of star power that prompted the Field Museum to court Graslie in April with the promise of a new position at the museum tailor made for her--Chief Curiosity Correspondent. The idea of working every day at one of the top research facilities in the country and plenty of new material for The Brain Scoop was enough to convince her to leave her work at the University of Montana Zoological Museum and move across the country to Chicago in June.
"It's been the biggest culture shock ever," Graslie said. "Before I moved here, I'd been in a taxi once and had only been on public transit a handful of times. But it's been amazing working here."
The hiring comes at a time when the Field Museum continues to struggle with long-term debt problems while trying to build compelling exhibits for the public and continuing to support active scientific research. It recently cut millions from its research budget and merged its anthropology, zoology, geology and botany departments. Museum administration hopes Graslie can help expose the work the museum does away from the view of the public and attract a younger demographic.
"It's not communicated very well that we're an active research institution," said Anna Goldman, the museum's mammals preparator and preparation lab manager and occasional guest on The Brain Scoop. "To a lot of people, museums are dead and dusty, but (Emily) is here saying ‘Hey, look at all this stuff we do here and is used actively every day.'"
The Brain Scoop is a far cry, however, from typical glossy public relations material. Graslie is equally at home astutely explaining the scientific differences between horns and antlers as she is comparing an octopus penis to a "party popper" or joking about the delights of dead chipmunk smells. Some of the videos cross over into mild PG-13 territory.
"We had a parent complain about a porn joke in our octopus episode," Graslie said.
Many of the six episodes produced monthly begin with a Gross-o-Meter that warns viewers they might see blood, visible organs and other dead animal viscera. A video from earlier this year called "Wolf Head CSI Fun Time" shows Graslie performing an autopsy on the frozen head of a dead wolf. While cutting it open and digging through the skull, she makes jokey banter about how parts of it looked like pepperoni or that she wanted to name a child after a funny-sounding piece of wolf bone.
"Emily skinned a wolf in front of YouTube, and everyone went crazy over it, and it was an eye-opening experience, because the public were more interested in seeing some of this than we thought they were," Goldman said. Graslie didn't even know her own appetite for animal research until the very end of college. She began volunteering at the museum in Montana during the final semester of her senior year while finishing up her art degree.
"I'm from South Dakota, and we didn't have the Smithsonian or the Field Museum. We had a Cabelas Sporting Goods store and trophy mounts from people's hunts. A taxidermied moose head isn't exactly the same thing.
"It's a trophy, not an educational tool," she said.
She soon discovered she enjoyed museums way more than the art world and stayed in Missoula after graduation to continue her unpaid work while working odd jobs at convenience stores or selling jerseys at football games. One of the best parts of her museum gig: dissecting animals.
"I thought it was weird because I enjoyed it a lot. I thought I was perverted and there was something mentally wrong with me for enjoying the experience so much," Graslie said.
It was while volunteering at the museum that she met vlogger Hank Green, who runs several popular educational channels on YouTube. Green filmed a tour of the museum given by Graslie and posted it on the video-sharing site. Three days later, he asked her to host her own show. The Brain Scoop started in January, and it didn't take long for the show--and Graslie--to amass plenty of hardcore fans, a few of whom go too far in their devotion occasionally. She recently got an email from a man dying of terminal cancer who wanted Graslie to get his body after he passed away and dissect it for a future episode and then carve one of his bones up and wear it as a charm.
"The fans are great, but some people can be a little too loving," she said. Still Graslie, enjoys her popularity and welcomes being seen as role model for girls entering the natural sciences.
"I have people come up to me and say that watching my videos changed their life and inspired them to pursue the sciences," Graslie said. "A lot of young women especially need to have a strong female role model to feel like it's OK to look nice and not be the quintessential nerdy woman scientist that they believe is the only one that exists. I think if they go behind the scenes, people here aren't what you think of as scientists.
"We're not wearing lab coats and peeking into a microscope, we're just normal people."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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