York grad lands on ‘Daily Planet’
published November 1, 2011
York grad Dan Riskin (MSc ‘00) has a thing about bats – he’s obsessed with them. And he has a bat story for every occasion. The excitement in his voice jumps another level every time we touch on the subject of flying. But if that seems like an odd passion, keep in mind it was this long fascination that led him to new job as co-host of “Daily Planet” on the Discovery Channel.
Riskin now uses his three degrees, a BSc from the University of Alberta, a master’s degree in biology from York University, and a PhD in zoology from Cornell University, to explain the science behind stories from around the world.
We recently spoke with Riskin about York, his new show and yes, even bats.
Q: Your career has taken an unusual trajectory, from academic to television host. How exactly did you get your start?
A: When I was in high school I read a book about bats by a man named M. Brock Fenton. It was such an inspiring book and it got me very excited. So years later when I finished my undergrad, I contacted Fenton who was then a professor at York and told him how I was inspired by his work and that I would love meet him someday and study bats.
He invited me to come out and join his lab at York and for a bat nerd it was like Shangri-La. He had students working in Africa and South America, and within a month of coming to York I was in Costa Rica catching bats. It was just a dream come true.
Q: Was there something particular about the book that captured your imagination?
A: There’s just something about the way the book was written that captured what’s fun about biology – the adventure of learning new things and the passion that people have when doing the work.
Instead of talking about how important bats are from an ecological perspective, [Fenton] told stories about the time that a grad student fell face first into the mud or another time when someone had to crawl into a warthog hole to find a colony of bats without really knowing if the warthog was home – which would have been very bad.
It was just very fun to read and I found that doing science in that lab had the same effect.
Q: What is it about bats that get you so excited?
A: One of the most exciting things about bats for me is how many species there in the world. There are 1200 known species of bats. If you take all the mammals in the per cent of all the different kinds of mammals that live in the world are bats.
I’ve spent the last 10 years looking aggressively for all bats I could find and I’ve only seen about 100 species, which is less than 10 per cent.
Q: So tell us one cool bat fact.
A: There’s one fact I refer to all the time that has to do with the size of a bat’s testicles. If humans had testicles relative to the size of bats they would be as big as pumpkins. That says it all for me.
Here’s another: there’s a bat that lives in central and South America, and instead of living in caves, it lives in furled up leaves. It holds on to leaves with suction cups much like those of an octopus. I did my thesis on this species, which is known as Spix`s Disc-winged bat.
Q: How did you go from studying bats in South America to co-hosting a television show?
A: After I finished my master’s at York, it put me in a really good position to do my PhD at Cornell University and from there I went on to do a post doc at Brown. I was on track for an academic career and had a position lined up at City University in New York.
At the same time, more and more people were asking me to film various television spots on science. I found that when I got in front of the camera, it was a lot like teaching, the passion, the excitement, the spirit of the book that I read about why it’s exciting to study animals. That’s what I tap into when I’m in front of the camera.
Those opportunities to snowballed until I managed to get myself on Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and someone at Daily Planet saw that clip. That was around the time [former host] Jay Ingram was about to step down from the show. They reached out to me, and I could not have been more honoured or thrilled.
Q: You’ve been co-host of Daily Planet since August. Now that you have a few episodes under your belt, what’s your favourite segment so far?
A: One of the first things we did was create a few segments to help introduce me to people watching the show and one of the producers suggested we get some bats involved. So they took me to China to look for a species known as the fishing bat which catches fish with its feet. I had read tons of studies about them but had never seen one.
It was a nice transition between my work at York University as a bat biologist and my new world explaining science to people on television.