Emily Graslie Speaks at March for Science Chicago

Thank you. I’m Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent for The Field Museum, and host and creator of the educational YouTube science channel, The Brain Scoop. And today, I’m also proud to be your commencement speaker.

So to the March for Science graduating class of 2017, congratulations on your tremendous achievements. Wow. Give yourself a round of applause! Unfortunately, none of you will be receiving a physical diploma today because we had to spend $10k on all of those porta-potties. Yeah, pooping is expensive, but let’s all be grateful to the scientific progress that let us understand bacteria and parasites, and that allowed us to improve our infrastructure for excrement. After all, modern sanitation is one of the greatest medical advancements of the last century!… I could have probably started this with a better example. It’s just that my boss and like seven hundred people from The Field Museum are here, also my Mom — hi, Mom — and I’m sort of nervous.

I’ll be brief- it’s cold, and all that’s between you and a brisk walk down Columbus is my babbling, so thanks for your patience, but I’ve waited a long time to give this talk. About.. Seven years.

I never had the grades to be valedictorian of my high school, and I skipped my college graduation to go camping instead. So when the March for Science Chicago organizers asked if I’d want to be the keynote, I thought — here’s my chance to give an inspirational commencement speech, one I never knew before now I wanted to do. After all, in a way this is a graduation ceremony, the preface of a new book. In spite of what I read in the news and online every day — that the world is doomed and our planet is turning into a dumpster fire — I can’t help but be hopeful for the future if we put in the work, energy, and time needed to face the challenges ahead. I long to celebrate the incredible unlikeliness of our very existence, and to marvel at the truly extraordinary circumstances which came together over millions and billions of years, culminating in this very moment now. I mean, it’s difficult not to be hopeful when I think about how our common ancestors survived five mass extinction events on this planet already. Many of you already know that or at least can appreciate the awesomeness of that statement, which perhaps is why you are here. But I’m here because I hope you feel hopeful, too.

The March for Science is an opportunity to reflect on those who have come before us, on the developments we humans have achieved not only in the last few years, but hundreds, and thousands. But this is not merely a party to celebrate and pat ourselves on the back for our characteristics as truth-seekers and fact checkers. This March is a chance to also acknowledge our pitfalls, our historic and persistent challenges, and our shortcomings as scientists and as supporters of scientific endeavours and progress — because we are graduating onto the next phase, the next chapter of our story. This is but a new beginning. Part of what I want you to do after today is take the ideas and messages from this event and share them with the people you know who did not want to be here today. That’s, like, the first step.

Undoubtedly there are a great number of you in the audience wondering, who is this wackadoo, and why didn’t you get a real scientist up there to say something more, I don’t know, academic sounding? To which I’d say — if this talk isn’t your speed, then I look forward to reading your rebuttal. Part of the reason I was asked to talk today is because I showed up. Consistently. And I’m going to tell you a story about the importance of showing up.

My life so far can be divided up into two eras: Before Science, and After Science. I studied art as an undergraduate at the University of Montana because — and I just painfully reread a diary I wrote when I was 17 in order to corroborate this fact, so you’re welcome — because I thought it was the only thing I was good at. Grades and standardized test scores told me I was not exceptional at much else.

In art school everything is about you, your work, your individual mission statement, and I found it to feel pretty isolating at times. But then a friend took me to visit the zoological research museum on campus where she worked in the preparation lab, and I got the chance to prepare a specimen myself — a mouse that had been collected for a research project studying the distribution of rodents in Montana. I’ll save you the gooey details, but the final part of the preparation process involves writing your name on the specimen label as the preparator — mostly for accountability reasons — but that moment was one of the gratifying in my life. It was like signing a piece of art, but more than that, I had made a contribution, even if it was tiny and seemingly inconsequential, to something much larger than myself. I had helped to create a small time capsule of data which would outlive me in that museum collection, along with tens of thousands of others. I made a very tiny dent in an increasing body of knowledge. It felt electrifying.

Since I had extra course credits and some free time that following semester, I continued to show up in that museum and figure out how else I could participate to this thing that was bigger than me — and I felt a sense of ownership of the specimens in the collection I was volunteering to help manage. The more I learned about those specimens the more I felt obligated to speak for them, especially when I saw few others saying anything. I pointed a finger at the University’s administration for not allocating appropriate funds or support for specimens that were spoiling in a basement room across campus — and I pointed that finger again when that collection sustained further damage. I was picking up dehydrated fish specimens from a shattered jar with a label that told me those organisms were collected in Montana in the late 1800s, and in that moment I realized that I was holding the fragile and vulnerable parts of a now-broken time machine. And that, even if I wasn’t the researcher to study them or make new discoveries through their use, maybe my children would, or my grandchildren. And what sort of steward would I be of our planet if I didn’t do everything within my power to ensure I could help manage some small, minute aspect of our collective knowledge?

It wasn’t about just a few fish. It was about the biologist who ventured out west to make some of the first biological collections in Montana. It was about the scientist who trained them, and the wealth of knowledge passed down through generations before. My anger was for the lost potential for that wealth of knowledge to grow because of inaction, or because it seemed too big of a problem to solve, or maybe not even worth the effort. It was about the principle of the matter- that this was a blatant disregard for our collective past, present, and future.

Those specimens and that museum forever altered not only the course of my life, but how I view the world and my role within it. A dead mouse helped me understand what it means to meaningfully and collaboratively participate in community- the scientific community, museum community, and with any number of future individuals or groups that would be curious about the rodents of Montana. I thought about the uses by the agricultural community, or wildlife management groups who will need to use that data to track invasive rodent species that destroy crops. Pest control groups who need data about prey population numbers to show how their pesticides are — or are not — impacting local wildlife. Medical researchers who can make links between some rodent species and the transmission of certain illness and who need to know how far or abundantly distributed those rodents are in order to mitigate outbreaks. Climate scientists using decades of aggregated data of these animals to map and see how rodents are moving to higher elevations as seasonal temperatures rise. Conservation communities wanting to advocate for a rare and unsung mouse found only in that area, or for a threatened or endangered species which relies on those rodents as their primary food source- and those creatures that would be further harmed should the rodent populations suffer. Hardly any of this information can be known without deliberate surveys of our planet’s plants and animals, through which we are discovering new species constantly. Science — curiosity — and the desire to find solutions to the myriad of problems we face as a global society, is at the root of all of these endeavours. This type of work is carried out by scientific organizations all around the world, including The Field Museum, and now I’m lucky enough to get to talk about the work of our great Chicago institution every single day.

But I’ll tell you — man, it was hard to get people to listen to me at first, especially when I’m running around campus screaming my head off about how we need to save a bunch of dead fish and mice. I get how that sounds, well, crazy. I had friends tell me it wasn’t worth the stress and effort. I had others question the appropriateness of my actions, saying it wasn’t my place to care for or worry about those objects, that it was someone else’s responsibility. But I learned that if I am aware of a problem that I can help fix, it is my responsibility, whether I take ownership of the issue or not.

So I kept showing up. I showed up with paints and brushes, I showed up with my art school buddies, I showed up with a digital camera, with a blog, I showed up with every tool in my box. And then one day, someone else showed up with a videographer and a microphone and an audience of a few hundred thousand people on YouTube. And as they say on Broadway — I did not throw away my shot.

And that’s why I’m here today, and part of the reason The Field Museum is here today, too. I’ve been showing up to talk about the importance of science in our daily lives for seven years, and The Field Museum’s got a good track record of showing up, too- for about 125 years, now. But for some of you out there, this might be your first time showing up and speaking out. I hope it is not the last. My greatest hope for the March for Science is we see this as a new beginning, and a commitment to keep showing up in the future.

Marchers — whether you are a professional trained and practicing scientist, or a student, advocate, and supporter of these endeavours — familiarize yourself with the scientific institutions and organizations this great city has to offer. Participate in our local and regional programs — and if those programs don’t exist, commit to creating them. Engage in citizen science projects, curate an art show or a poetry slam about the impact science has had in your life, talk to your children’s classroom about the nature in your neighborhood. Attend the next March for Science. Speak up for science.

We are all members of the scientific community in one way or another. We are educators, artists, communicators and writers, and passionate lifelong learners who have an obligation and a mission to help others understand and empathize with our beautiful and fragile world.

And on that note — beauty — for all of you out there: commit yourself to curiosity. Curiosity is a light that illuminates the beauty of our world, our cherished existence. I’m a firm believer that curiosity is the first step towards empathy. Ask questions of things you don’t understand, and seek answers. Commit yourself to the beauty and diversity of your neighborhood- and commit yourself to learning the name of whom you share your street and city with. Learn your neighbor’s name, whether they are a person, a bird, a beetle or a tree. Value them all. The freedom to pursue that knowledge is no longer an idle luxury — it’s of the utmost import.

To conclude, I’m going to quote a line from a great commencement speech that was delivered by Kermit the Frog — “On behalf of frogs, fish, pigs, bears and all of the other species who are lower than you on the food chain, thank you for dedicating your lives to saving our world and our home.”

Now, we March!