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Vanessa Hill: The brains behind YouTube hit BrainCraft

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Vanessa Hill is the Australian producer and host of BrainCraft; a popular science web series on YouTube that explores the inner workings of our minds by explaining psychology, neuroscience and behaviour. From the CSIRO in Sydney to PBS in LA — and a stint doing astronomy talks at Uluru in between — Vanessa shares her story and tell us what she misses most about Australia.

As a child, what did you dream of doing?

“A vet, marine biologist or a zookeeper. There’s a strong animal love there. I grew up watching David Attenborough documentaries. I think that really inspired me to get into science and I was really interested in working with animals.”

Vanessa Hill at her graduation from Master of Science Communication at ANU
Vanessa Hill at her graduation from Master of Science Communication at Australian National University.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

Why did you decide to study science at university?

“As an undergrad, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I actually just chose something that was quite general.

I chose the University of New South Wales in Sydney because I could study zoology and creative writing all at once. You could say that a love for David Attenborough is coming through there.

When I got to university, I was really job focused. I liked science because I was learning about facts and I was working in a lab and doing something I could see translating to the real world — more so than reading books and discussing literary theories and movements. The realness of science drew me to it.

Now that I’m older, I totally appreciate what English degrees can do. But at the time, I just loved the practical aspect — I loved the dissections, I loved the experiments with mice and things like that. They were really exciting because you could manipulate something and see results.”

Vanessa Hill with a class on a CSIRO outreach trip in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
Vanessa Hill with a class on a CSIRO outreach trip in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

Your first job after university was with the CSIRO Australia’s national science agency. What did you learn about teaching science to primary and high school kids?

“I was just kind of thrown in the deep end, which I think is one of the best ways to learn.

What I learnt about teaching science was that it helped to have hands-on examples. That’s what really resonated with kids of all ages. I also learnt that it was important to find what was the coolest and most interesting point about it — the excitement comes through that.”

Vanessa Hill giving an astronomy talk at Uluru
Vanessa Hill giving an astronomy talk at Uluru.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

What was it like to give astronomy talks at Uluru?

"It was an amazing experience. I’m very lucky to have lived in the Northern Territory because I don’t think that a lot of people in Australia have the opportunity to do that. And it’s such a beautiful place — it’s an amazing place to live, people out there are so friendly. It definitely has a different pace. It’s like it’s on island time.

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Watch 'The Tiny Key to Ageing' by Vanessa Hill YouTube: BrainCraft

How did you start making YouTube videos?

“At the CSIRO, I was lucky to be able to move around to different teams. I came back down to Sydney because I had an opportunity to join their media team.

I got some funding to produce a series, which was a DIY educational video series — which I guess melded together all of my experience.

I ended up producing video because I pushed the boundaries of what I could do in my job — all of the time — and found that that was something I enjoyed. I wanted to do more. So, in November 2013, I started producing BrainCraft independently because I thought it’d be a cool idea for a show. There was no educational content on YouTube coming out of Australia — other than some government videos.

There were no shows that were focused on the brain, which is what I originally studied. I wanted to be an ‘indie educator’, and I also wanted to create more video, and I loved YouTube — there was an opportunity there, so I started making videos. YouTube is an excellent platform because you instantly get feedback. I learnt very quickly what people liked and didn’t like and moulded content from there.”

Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft
Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

How do you come up with ideas for BrainCraft?

“It differs all the time. I think most of my ideas come to me when I’m consuming other media. I read a lot of books and a lot of articles. I love podcasts. But my podcast feed is mixed with more economics, design and architecture, and philosophy stuff — rather than pure science content. A lot of the time, I get ideas from areas that aren’t necessarily related to science.

Other ways are things I think of that will just come to me at random moments, or [from] my friends and family, or even viewers. Someone will be like ‘why do we feel jealous? What’s with that? What’s the science behind jealousy?’ And I’ll start finding information and looking into it. Sometimes the questions will come to me. But more often, I’ll discover them by reading and watching other things.”

Vanessa Hill behind the scenes on a stop motion animation for BrainCraft
Vanessa Hill behind the scenes on a stop motion animation for BrainCraft.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

How do you go about making academic information accessible?

“I’m lucky, in a way, where my audience is already interested in science. So I think what I need to do is take the scientific terms and kind of change them into a language that people will understand. Making terms more general helps. And also lots of analogies.

One thing that is different about YouTube, compared to TV or other documentaries, is that it’s very personality driven."

What are your thoughts on being a female presenter on YouTube?

“It’s different being a female, and it’s different when you’re not American or British. I say that because a lot of people — and it kind of blows my mind — have never heard an English speaker that isn’t American, or isn’t from the UK. So people get so confused about my accent. I guess they’re like ‘Oh my god, what is wrong with your mouth? What is wrong with your voice? Why do you talk like that?’

It’s definitely hard being a woman as well. I think people are just more used to guys teaching them. All science education and technology audiences on YouTube are heavily male skewed. And there is an effect where we just like hearing and learning from people who somewhat look like ourselves.”

Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft
Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

Why did you move to the United States?

“I moved to New York when I got my job with PBS. When I had done a small number of episodes, PBS contacted me because they were interested in bringing BrainCraft under their network.

I had always wanted to move to NY. I loved it. I lived in Brooklyn; it’s such an amazing place. I worked in a creative space in a warehouse. It was the coolest. After I’d been there for 18 months, I moved to Los Angeles. I like LA because the climate is similar to Sydney. And it’s a lot easier to get to Australia as well. I’ve been back a few more times and I’m trying to work between Australia and LA.”

What do you miss about Australia?

“I’m going to say — because I have to — I miss my family, I miss my friends. But I miss sourdough bread the most. San Francisco, for example, is known for its sourdough bread. But it’s just not good. Americans put sugar in everything. So the bread is sugary and chewy; it’s really bad.

I miss other foods as well. I think Australia has a wonderful food and cafe culture that is not in the US. There are a lot of nice restaurants and cafes here, but there isn’t a culture of consistently good food. In Australia, you can basically go to any cafe and get a good coffee. It might not be great, but it’ll be good. Here, you really have to fight to get a good coffee.

I also miss the beaches in Australia. The beaches in LA are pretty bad compared to Sydney beaches. I miss driving to a Sydney beach with my sourdough on the passenger seat, listening to [Australian youth radio station] Triple J, my coffee in my coffee holder and the sun shining.”

Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft
Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

Many students come from overseas to study in Australia. What advice would you share with them?

“I studied in Australia and I went to a uni which was right near the beach. I actually went to the beach all the time — instead of going to lectures, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Lectures are more important to your education than going to the beach! You’ll learn that when it’s exam time and you’re trying to watch all of the lectures online the night before.”

Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft
Vanessa Hill on a shoot for BrainCraft.

Supplied: Vanessa Hill

Imagine you had the chance to host a barbeque anywhere in Australia. If you could invite three Australian guests (dead or alive) who would they be? What would be on the menu? Where would you like it to be held?

“Cate Blanchett. I love her — I think she’s an amazing actress. I was a member of Sydney Theatre Company for a couple of years and I saw her in plays. I think she’s rad.

David Unaipon, who’s the Indigenous man on the Australian $50 note. He’s really interesting because he was called ‘Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci’. At the turn of the century, he had all of these inventions he wanted to patent, but he didn’t have the money for them. I’d have him to chat about progress and science.

And the last is someone who is dead and isn’t widely known. It’s my great grandfather, Albert, who I never met. He was a coal miner in Helensburgh in the Illawarra region [in New South Wales]. All of my dad’s family were coal miners. It kind of blows my mind because I’m the most fragile, sensitive person and I think ‘how did I come from a family of coal miners?’ My great grandfather was in a mining accident where the roof in the mine collapsed and he lost both of his legs — just before the Great Depression. So my great grandfather had to go and pick bits of coal that fell off trains and sell them, and he sold blueberries. He just did so much to support his family because he didn’t get any compensation. I’d like to have him there because he comes from such a different time. I think it’d be really interesting to chat to him.

It’d be in the park at Bronte Beach. On the menu would definitely be lamb. I love lamb. I would have a nice loaf of sourdough bread, salad, fresh seafood and lots of vegetables.”

What would be your advice to your 15-year-old self?

“Keep pursuing the things that make you happy.”

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