Dan Riskin

TV host shares passion for science outreach

Monday, April 7, 2014 - 12:46pm
Elaine Smith

Dan Riskin is more than just the enthusiastic co-host of the Daily Planet, the Discovery Channel’s daily science program. He is also a bona fide biologist with a PhD from Cornell University and a passion for bats and science outreach.

Riskin shared both of his passions with faculty and students from the Department of Biology at U of T Mississauga at the department’s April 3 biology seminar.

“This is probably the worst title for a talk that I’ve ever used,” said Riskin, pointing to a screen emblazoned with the words “Sucker-footed bats don’t suck and your experience talking to the media about your research doesn’t have to either.”

Riskin proceeded to discuss his bat research, underlining the pull he feels toward research, despite loving his TV job with its opportunities to showcase the excitement of science.

“It’s the only daily TV science show in the world, and I’m proud of what we accomplish every day,” he said in an interview afterward, “but it makes me think in the back of my mind, ‘Why aren’t you doing anything, Dan?’ ”

Riskin’s research focus is bat mechanics, and he has explored how they adhere to surfaces, focusing on two species with adhesive organs on their wrists and ankles: Thyroptera, which are found in Central America, and Myzopoda, native to Madagascar. He finds it fascinating that the two species evolved separately, but behave similarly, bedding down in furled leaves during the day. The leaves unfurl within a day or two, so the bats must move their “residences” regularly, yet they stay close together within a home range – a mystery yet to be explored.

He has also studied vampire bats in Trinidad, and he had the audience laughing at video footage of vampire bats on a homemade treadmill, walking faster and faster to keep pace, until finally, they were “running,” using a bounding gait that researchers had never seen previously.

Given that there are about 1,200 species of bats and very little research has been done on them, Riskin is excited by the possibilities. Indeed, he is excited by science in general, and hopes he can inspire other researchers to share their own excitement with the media and the public.

“My philosophy is that you have to role model curiosity,” he said. “As scientists, we’re curious for a living. Questions, experiments and problem-solving turn us on.”

Riskin reminded the assembled biologists to think about outreach as they conducted their research by taking photos or video of themselves in the field, since media are more easily tempted if there are visuals to offer.

He also encouraged them to make the effort to respond to media requests.

“If you respond to media requests, you build a community of people who know you can do this kind of work, so when you come to them with some of your own research, they’ll listen,” he said.

Riskin told the researchers not to be afraid to reach out to the media because they “are starving for content.”

“Be passionate,” he advised. “You don’t have to dumb things down. The audience is willing to be excited with you.”

If this means focusing on only a couple of key points about your research, so be it, he said. He believes it is better to communicate the excitement of science than explain every detail of one’s findings.

Riskin’s words resonated with Nash Turley, a PhD student in biology.

“As scientists, there’s a lot we don’t think about,” he said. “We’re concerned about getting the science done right.

“His message is useful and helpful.”