As of July 2023, YouTuber Alexis Dahl’s most-viewed video begins with a selfie shot of her grinning in front of an enormous hulk of rusted machinery. The decaying equipment—which turns out to be the remains of a copper-sand dredge constructed in the early 20th century—leans precariously into the murky riparian waters of a lake near Houghton, Michigan. A dense, chilly-looking mist erases not just the horizon but the entirety of Earth beyond a few shrubby, silhouetted trees behind the dredge.
But Dahl, armored against the bleak scene in an oversized “Michigan Marching Band Mom” sweatshirt and a faded pink NASA hat, is flat-out chipper. “Hey there!” she says. “So, on my various filming trips around the Keweenaw Peninsula, I have repeatedly driven past this thing. It’s a big, old, rusty, currently very creepy looking piece of machinery sunk into Torch Lake*. And the time finally came: I had to learn the story. I wanted to know what this thing was, what it did, and how it got here—and, as usual, the answers to those questions were way more interesting than what I was expecting. And this time, they were also a little bit sobering. Here’s what I learned!”
It is fitting that the video—Meet the Toxic Sand Vacuum | Torch Lake, Michigan—is Dahl’s most viewed, because in many ways it exemplifies the content she has produced since early 2020. In a typical Alexis Dahl video, she essentially wonders what the story is with some often-overlooked feature of her environment (many of them located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and then does a deep (but not too deep) dive into the science, history, and continuing importance of the subject. For anyone interested in geology, infrastructure, or history (natural or cultural), the content is always compelling. But just as importantly, the videos are compelling thanks to Dahl’s sincerity and genuine excitement about what she learns. Above all, her channel is a window into the mind of a very smart, very thoughtful person doing something she loves and helping others learn in the process.
Indeed, Dahl was drawn to YouTube largely because it allows creators to communicate that sort of heartfelt, nerdy passion in ways that traditional science communications do not. “At the core of this is that I try to only make videos that I am truly interested in,” she says. “I am a person who is genuinely curious about the world and who has the good fortune to be able to explore a part of it. The ability to include various tangents and asides—and some of my personal thoughts and feelings—is what sets YouTube apart and makes it so meaningful for me, and I think that is also true for many of my viewers.”
What stands out most when speaking to Dahl is of course her passion for science and for learning. But that passion is balanced by a remarkably pragmatic and adaptable mindset that has driven her from an early age. For example, she initially enrolled in the Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCN) program with plans to become a neuroscientist. But working in various labs as an undergraduate quickly taught her that the pace of academic research was not a good fit. A few healthcare-shadowing experiences then showed her that her original backup plan—becoming a medical doctor—was not going to work either. But Dahl was not tempted to give up on her BCN degree. While she did not know exactly what she wanted to do, she knew it would involve science in some form. She therefore approached her time in the BCN program as an opportunity to hone essential science skills such as interpreting, summarizing, and critiquing scientific journal articles. A minor in writing and her work in the Sweetland Writing Center were also important parts of her Michigan education.
But various extracurriculars on campus were just as significant. One important epiphany for Dahl occurred while she was working as a student administrative assistant at Michigan Medicine. One day, a coworker mentioned an upcoming conference featuring a talk from Francis Collins, a former U-M faculty member who served as director of the National Institute of Health and was a key founder of the Human Genome Project. While Dahl has now forgotten the main subject of that talk, an offhand comment from Collins was, as Dahl describes it, one of the most important “lightbulb moments” of her life.
Of that moment, she recalls: “At some point, I distinctly remember Collins saying some version of, ‘Hey, we need people who know science—who know how it works and who can read the literature—to be willing to step away from the bench and tell other people about what is happening in these labs.’ That was the first time I had heard of science communication as a profession, and it was like all the puzzle pieces falling into place at once. Because on top of just loving learning, I love writing and the arts of all kinds. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh—this is the piece I was missing!’ The rest of my BCN track and time at Michigan really fed into that goal.”
Dahl then sought out various opportunities to develop her science communications skills. A part-time student job managing social media for the U-M Aerospace Engineering Program segued naturally into a similar role at an aviation company after she graduated.
That role would prove to be short-lived, however, because a Facebook message from a former Michigan Marching Band colleague alerted Dahl to an opportunity too perfect to ignore.
“I was just working and chilling in Ann Arbor the summer after my senior year,” Dahl recalls. “One day, I got a message from a woman who was in the band with me. She had seen on Tumblr that the YouTube channel SciShow Space was hiring freelance writers, and one of the main requirements was that you needed a bachelor’s degree. I just sort of looked at my shiny new degree and my time in the Aerospace Engineering department and was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Yes!’ It was a deeply wonderful moment of timing. I applied, and they hired me as a freelance writer. Eventually, they graciously invited me to apply for a newly opened script editor position, and I got that job. I ended up spending 3-4 years working there in total, first as a script editor and ultimately as the effective managing editor of the team.”
To be offered a position at SciShow—especially so soon after graduating—was an incredible development. For one thing, SciShow is one of the longest-running and most influential science-focused YouTube brands. Moreover, Dahl had been a fan since high school of that channel and of various other projects from founders (and Vlogbrothers) Hank and John Green. She had even occasionally made her own vlog-style, Green-Brothers-inspired videos throughout high school and college. This was a chance to learn from some of her childhood heroes: “16-year-old me would freak!” she laughs.
Working at SciShow did not disappoint, and she credits her time there for providing some of the most crucial skills she uses as a creator. “That is where I truly learned most things I’m doing now—just growing as a writer but also working with producers and seeing the process of how to turn a script into an interesting educational video. That was a very formative time, and I am deeply grateful to the wonderful people at SciShow for those opportunities,” she says.
While working full-time at SciShow, Dahl did not seriously pursue developing her own channel. But in early 2020, the pandemic lockdowns motivated her to dabble with making videos again. Then she and her husband moved to the Upper Peninsula (UP) in late 2020, and the unfamiliar surroundings inspired a lot of new questions. She saw an opportunity and began making videos focused on various things she observed in the UP. At the time, Dahl was not sure how seriously she would invest in her channel. She had just stepped down from her role at SciShow and was mostly just exploring, learning, and having fun while figuring out her next career move. Her channel was still small (about 800 subscribers) and growing slowly.
But a surprise email from the Director of Visit Keweenaw—the Keweenaw Peninsula’s tourism bureau—helped her decide. “Somehow, the director had stumbled across my videos,” Dahl says. “He basically asked, ‘Hey, do you have any other ideas for videos focused on the area? Could we sponsor a few?’ It was a stunning turn of events because my understanding is that the typical process of growing a channel does not happen that way. You normally build a channel very slowly over the course of five years or so. Eventually a sponsor may reach out to you. This was so fast. The moment when they basically offered to pay me to make more videos was when I stopped and asked myself, ‘Is this really it? Is this the next phase of my career?’ We made a series of videos together focused on the Quincy Copper Mine, which I really enjoyed. I decided then to just keep making videos.”
But the growth of Dahl’s channel was still fairly slow until the final days of 2022, when YouTube’s mysterious algorithm decided to promote one of her videos to a few more people—which quickly snowballed into a lot more people. Over the course of a few days, her view counts and subscribers grew exponentially. Dahl was taking a break for the holidays at the time, and she struggled at first to understand what was happening to her channel. The video in question—The Meteorite That Buried Michigan | The Sudbury Impact—was not even a new one (she had posted it in 2021). But fittingly enough considering the subject matter, it was the first one to truly blow up.
Despite that explosive growth, Dahl remains committed to maintaining a healthy work-life balance and to producing quality content she is passionate about—even if that means only posting one video per month or so. That goes against conventional YouTube wisdom, which says that weekly (or even more frequent) posts are the way to keep users (and algorithms) engaged and new subscribers rolling in.
“I have always been very firmly opposed to the YouTube grind,” she says. “It’s very important to me to make quality content that I am proud of, no matter how many people see it. Because of that I take longer to make videos than YouTube gurus say I should. I am very glad that I worked out some of that personal philosophy stuff early on, because when I suddenly had a video with 500,000 views and gained ten times as many subscribers as usual over the span of a few days, I did not really feel pressure to start producing more. Or if I did feel it, I was able to ignore it. I just said, ‘Okay, that’s cool. I’m still proud of what I made, and I’m going to just keep taking the time I need to make new things I’m proud of as well.’”
Over the past several months, Dahl has been expanding the kinds of topics she covers. One recent upload explored the colorful history of Detroit’s Belle Isle. At the time of this writing, her most recent video returns to the UP to explore Alberta, Michigan, one of Henry Ford’s “utopian” planned communities. Dahl plans to continue expanding her subject matter, including covering more places and things in the Lower Peninsula. More importantly, she hopes to incorporate more Indigenous voices and is currently seeking collaborators to help her diversify the stories and perspectives told in her videos.
Before wrapping up our interview, Dahl wanted to share two important lessons she has learned from her career thus far. “First, one of the biggest things I learned is the importance of being willing to think outside the box when it comes to using your degree,” she says. “Even when I was here in the BCN program, the topic of what people planned to do with their degree would come up. Most people were like, well, I want to go to grad school, or I want to go to medical school, or I want to be a social worker. Those are great options for some people. But it does not always have to be any of those traditional paths, and that is okay—it’s good! I think it’s incredibly important to take time to ask yourself what you want to do—and to know that it’s OK to try what works for you.”
Finally, Dahl enthusiastically supports anyone who is considering starting a YouTube channel, but she wants to ensure that people do so with realistic expectations. “A very important thing to understand is that YouTube is not immediately profitable, even once you start to get some sponsored videos and grow your channel,” she says. “It takes a long time to become sustainable as a full-time job—and it often never gets there. I am currently edging up on about 50,000 subscribers, and I have several videos with six-digit view counts. But YouTube is only about half of my business. The other half is freelancing and other work, which is still a very core part of my job. I see a lot of people, especially younger people, say that they want to do YouTube. And that is great! But they should understand all of that going in.”
* Note: Dahl’s video refers to the Torch Lake located near Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not the better known Torch Lake located northeast of Traverse City.