Dan Riskin—award-winning bat biologist and TV scientist—talks with Brittany Trogen, ‘08 BSc, about how science led him to his dream job as the co-host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet.
How did you get your start in science?
I went to the U of A straight out of high school, and when I started I didn’t know if I wanted to study acting or physics. I figured you can always act in community theatre, but you can’t do community physics; so I made the decision to take more science classes.
My first year at the U of A, I had this unbelievable zoology class with Reuben Kaufman, who’s a tick endocrinologist. He was so enthusiastic about the hormones in ticks that I was really entertained by his class, his passion and his excitement for the material. He really got me going down the scientific route.
What made you decide to specialize in bats?
I read a book in high school that planted the idea—a book called Just Bats by Brock Fenton, who is a famous Canadian bat biologist. It just captured that passion and excitement you get from doing the science rather than just reading the facts. When I finished reading the book, I wrote a letter to Brock Fenton and said, ‘I really admire your work and I’d love to work with you someday,’ and next thing you know I was a master’s student in his lab.
I believe if you’re going to be doing science—or any kind of research—you have to be doing something that gets you out of bed every morning. For me, that thing was vampire bats.
You’ve spent the past several years researching and teaching—how did you make the transition from lab scientist to TV host?
A friend of mine recommended me to a production company looking for evolutionary biologists who could describe things with some flavour and who weren’t old men—I fit that description. Then that same production company produced Monsters Inside Me [on Animal Planet in the U.S.], and that show has done very well.
As a scientist, I get to learn new things and tell people things they didn’t know before about the natural world. I’m very passionate about the scientific world. The TV gigs are about finding a funnel for that passion.
Dan visits a Speckled Flying Fox at the Lubee Bat Conservancy in Florida.
Your TV work is really taking off, and soon you’ll be starting another new job as co-host on Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet—how do you feel about that?
I feel a little bit like it’s too good to be true—I keep pinching myself.
When I was doing my PhD, I got a bit of press for the work I was doing with vampire bats, and I was interviewed by Daily Planet. I remember thinking it was the ultimate compliment to my work to get the interest of that show.
I’m so honoured by what a big deal it is to join their team. The analogy would be like if I joined the Oilers. I respect the institution so much that if I’m going to wear that jersey, I’m going to play my heart out.
Jay Ingram [‘67 BSc, ’09 DSc (Honorary)] has been the face of Daily Planet for 16 years—since Discovery Channel’s inception in Canada—how does it feel to be stepping into his shoes?
I have so much respect for Jay Ingram. He’s made the world a better place because of his work in science and television.
When Daily Planet first came on the air in ‘95, I was still doing my undergrad at the U of A, and I remember someone saying while we were watching the show, ‘Did you know that guy went to the U of A?’ and I said, ‘No way! I go to the U of A!’ It just never occurred to me then I would be doing the job someday.
I can get people excited about science relatively easily, I’ve been doing active research, I taught every year of my PhD at Cornell. My hope is that viewers will see that I’m not trying to be Jay, but that I’m someone who’s trying to bring something new and different to the show.
What excites you most about this new opportunity?
Dan with his Daily Planet Co-Host, Ziya Tong.
There’s a need to make the scientific world accessible, and I think Daily Planet does that better than just about anybody. Fundamentally, science is a curiosity about the world, but there’s so much built up around the idea that science is a boring thing. Going to this bigger scale where I’m able to reach out to an audience of millions of people can make a fundamental difference to the future. If you get a high school student to think ‘Hm, science doesn’t look that boring,’ maybe you can get them working on climate change or habitat loss where they can make a really big difference.
How did the U of A prepare you for where you are today?
I didn’t realize how much of an advantage I had as a graduate of the U of A until I also had an Ivy League education from Cornell to compare it to. The research at the U of A is world-class, and the teaching is absolutely fantastic. I think the passion I saw in Reuben Kaufman and in the other profs I had kindled a curiosity in me. I just continue to try to learn things and to share them with people, whether that’s in a classroom or on Craig Ferguson’s show. I’m really happy with where I am, and I feel lucky as all hell.
Interviewer Brittany Trogen graduated with a molecular genetics degree and is co-founder and producer for the science communications company Science in Seconds Ltd., where she works to make scientific research accessible to the general public.
Watch a clip from one of Dan’s many visits to The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.