If you asked today's interviewee what her job is, she'd reply that it's to "tell everyone humanly possible about the awesome stuff I get to do on a daily basis with the amazing things that the natural world provides." How does she do that? By hosting the educational (and funny and gross and delightful) Youtube channel The Brain Scoop and serving as the Chicago Field Museum's Chief Curiosity Correspondent--with both, she educates and entertains and serves as the proxy for what you would do if you had full run of a really old, fancy, cool natural history museum, which is learn a lot and make offhand jokes about the cool and gross and weird stuff you saw. Initially trained as an artist, she launched to fame after the Vlogbrothers (that's another very popular Youtube channel, for those who don't know) showcased her work as a curatorial volunteer at the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum in Montana (where she initially began spending time in order to find subjects to draw.) We don't discuss it below but her work to bring more young women into science and to bring light to the bullshit she's encountered in her efforts to do so is especially worth noting. You can follow her here on Twitter.
What does the first hour of an average day look like, in terms of when you get up, what you read/listen to/do, and so on?
My alarm usually goes off around 6:14 - I keep it across my room so I don't turn it off and fall back asleep. I do snooze for about an hour, though, which involves the self-induced agony of getting out of bed, walking across the room, hitting snooze, and getting back into bed. When I'm finally conscious I spend a half hour staring at the ceiling and listening to the sparrows outside of my window. Sometimes an hour.
You originally majored in studio art: do you still make art? What do you typically do with it when you're finished?
I do make art - right now I'm working on a painting to fulfill a perk for the 2013 Project for Awesome, John and Hank Green's annual IndieGoGo charity event. Right now it's a landscape. It's slowly becoming a stormy landscape. There will most likely be some animals involved, but they haven't showed up yet. The painting was the single highest-priced perk available, and someone was crazy generous enough to donate $5k to get a painting by yours truly. There's a lot of pressure when you've already sold a work that hasn't been created yet. Otherwise, when I make art I'm terribly impatient with trying to sell it so most goes to friends and family, or charity. I've only ever sold two works of art which I personally received the payment for: one to an aunt, the other to my dad. I needed help paying rent.
Which episode or episodes have sent the needle flying the furthest on the Brain Scoop's Grossometer?
I think "Gutting the Wolf" has the highest rating for the Grossometer due to all of the blood - but after the first time we used it for an episode I pretty much gave up responsibility of calibrating that thing myself. I am a terrible judge of what would or wouldn't be totally disgusting to another person since my immersion in specimen preparation has become so thorough. Personally, I think Squirrel McNastyface is greatly underrated: that episode is the instance when I came closest to throwing up while we were filming, but Michael (editor) didn't seem to think it was visually as jarring as some of the others. It's hard to gauge.
In your experience, what have you learned about museums in terms of what they need to do better in order to improve their operations or make them more sustainable?
Museums need more money, period. We've all got big ideas on how we can improve things but the budget is always the underlying factor in being unable to execute plans and making dreams unactionable. In order to remedy this vicious cycle museums have got to learn how to communicate their intentions and potential to the greater public in addition to having to compete for attention and personal investment. We're forced by societal trends to remain technologically relevant and when you've got no money those trends are difficult to anticipate and even harder to keep up with. So, I suppose the best things museums can do is to make necessary changes that aren't huge investments of time and money, which is way easier said than done. We've got to refocus on what it is that makes us unique and significant. We've literally got millions of stories to tell, so now we've just got to figure out how best to tell those stories in a way that is entertaining, informative, and impactful. These are not easy things to implement overnight by any means.
Which famous people have you been surprised to learn are fans of the show?
Pretty much every YouTuber with a large following. I feel like an imposter among them. Most have been doing it for significantly longer than myself, and they've got such a great confidence and trajectory - sometimes I feel like my success is a huge, happy accident that will fizzle out as quickly as it came into fruition. On an unrelated note, after my video "Where my ladies at?" came out, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model retweeted the link from Michael Ian Black with the comment "geez, this girl makes me want to put my clothes on." I wish I could find that tweet. Oh, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's daughter apparently really likes the show, too, which is amazing.
Which subject or subjects has it been hardest for you to get fascinated by?
I'm always as genuinely fascinated as I seem. That being said, some scientists do a poor job of selling me on their research because they tend to be so nonchalant or shy about it. They aren't in your face - they're tactful and humble - so when someone mentions they study liverworts I kind of shrug and say, so what, but once I see one of these liverworts underneath a microscope and they explain the ecological significance of these completely unassuming, microscopic plants - it's easy to get pumped about nearly anything.
I've read that the Field can only display 1% of what it actually has on inventory, but I imagine they don't have an infinite amount of space for all their stuff. How do they get rid of inventory, most typically, when they need to offload 100 dead eggs or a bunch of stuffed birds or a skeleton they won't use anymore?
The only reason we would deaccession ("get rid of") a collection is for very, very specific reasons. Right now we are trying to relocate a collection of algae that nobody has studied for something like sixty years, it's taking up space, and most importantly we aren't able to research the specimens to the extent in which they could be utilized by another institution. Before we can do this everything has to be databased and inventoried - moving a collection is serious work, time, and money. We never just toss anything; it typically goes to another museum or academic institution. The beauty of natural history is that we may never be able to achieve the full potential of the collections we have because we can't be certain how they will become relevant in the future due to technological advancements (3D modeling/printing!) and new genius students innovating ways to learn about our world. We're like organized, purpose-driven hoarders in that sense. So, we have an obligation to take care of those past collections, but it also makes us choosier about what we decide to take in - our museum can really only house one massive articulated T-rex, after all.
After the prep and before the editing, what's the process of shooting a typical Brain Scoop? Do you use cue cards and how many takes do you go through an episode on average?
This depends on the episode - if it's a collections tour (Like, "Economic Botanical Collection" or "Meteorites from Spaaaaace!"), then we mostly do a pre-interview with the scientist where I give them a heads up as to what I want to focus on, but from there it's mostly just off the cuff. I never make them repeat something because that comes off as unnatural and weird. For "Ask Emily"-type episodes, or "Nondenominational Holiday Botanical Celebration," I write a script and shoot it from memory. Like, I read the paragraph off of the script, throw the script in the drawer next to the chair, and deliver the line (more or less) to the camera. Sometimes a two-page script takes an hour to shoot this way. Sometimes two hours. It depends on what time of the day we're filming; morning is better for me. Also, if it's a complicated concept I'm trying to explain I usually panic that what I'm saying doesn't make sense and there's only so many times I can say "metamorphosis" before my brain caves in and words don't sound like words anymore.
Which specimen or specimens have you handled so far in your career smelled the worst?
Virginia opossums smell terrible. They're just. Ugh. The smell like a hot middle school locker room, full of body odor that is covered up by natural musk, with a rotting fish buried in a dirty diaper shoved behind the radiator.
I don't know if you're allowed to say this, but what's your least favorite permanent exhibit at the Field?
I won't name names, but some of the exhibits about certain geographical areas need some serious updating - they depict "modern life" which is great, but this was modern life in the 1980s or early 90s and nobody watches VHS tapes or listens to cassettes anymore, so they're kind of behind the times.
I did! It was one of my first real jobs when I was 15 or so. We hand rolled truffles, made gelato and candied nuts, created cute gift baskets, and perfected the art of making pyramids out of chocolates for the display cases. I ate .... everything. It was that time in my life when I thought eating fruit was healthy even if it was an apple covered in a pound of nuts and caramel, or white-chocolate dipped strawberries. My next job at a bagel store perpetuated my belief that "cream cheese is good for you if it's got veggies in it."
What do you most covet in the museum gift shop?
This giraffe anatomy kit, the jellyfish tie, or the crafting with cat hair book because what.
How does it feel to be the 378th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I'm honored to join the ranks and I look forward to our ten-year follow up interview. Is that too bold?