I Want Your Job: Dan Riskin, Scientist on Screen
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I Want Your Job: Dan Riskin, Scientist on Screen

The co-host of Discovery Canada's Daily Planet spills on bats, celebrity encounters, and the beauty of science.

I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.

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Photo courtesy of Daily Planet.

Dan Riskin is a scientist, but his day-to-day work hardly fits the popular image. For instance, not too many scientists get the chance to interview an astronaut, live in space, for a broadcast. But the co-host of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet (which is about to air its last episode of the season) recently did just that, scoring a chat with Commander Chris Hadfield during the astronaut’s stint on the International Space Station.

“I could see him floating while he was answering my questions, in space,” says Riskin. “It’s hard to get across how cool that is without using swear words. Just unreal.”

Raised in Edmonton, Riskin did his undergraduate at the University of Alberta then attended York University for his master’s degree (he did his thesis on bats), followed by a PhD at Cornell (on bats again), and a post-doc at Brown. With a 2010 offer for a university faculty position in New York City, Riskin thought to himself: “Well, goodbye Canada. I guess I’ll be living in the states.” Then, he got a life-changing phone call from Daily Planet.

“They asked me to interview [to become a host],” he says. “And I haven’t looked back.”

Torontoist: How did you and Daily Planet find each other?

Dan Riskin: It just sort of worked out. I worked with Animal Planet in the U.S. on a show called Monsters Inside Me, about parasites, which was absolutely vulgar and awesome. Based on that I did some appearances with Craig Ferguson on his show, and I think the people at Daily Planet noticed those. They knew [previous host] Jay Ingram was about to step aside and they invited me.

How has the transition to television been?

It’s been awesome. I was worried whether it would be as intellectually stimulating as academics, and it is. Instead of narrowly focusing on one thing so much that you can’t get enough of it, you sort of open up your world. I’m an expert on how bats move—how they fly and how they crawl—and you can fill your days with that. I did, for many years. But now, I have to know about Chris Hadfield, and tornadoes, and beetles, and chemistry. Every day I’m learning about subject areas I knew very little about before. And I’ve been freed up to explore things I didn’t have time for before. It’s not a washed-down version of being a scientist; it’s a more colourful version of it.

What have been some of the most exciting moments?

Well, every time I talk to Chris Hadfield I get goosebumps. And along the way, doing these late-night TV show appearances and sitting on a couch with Cameron Diaz or talking with that dude from The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges. There are just these moments where you’re meeting these people that are really cool, which is one of the wonderful perks of having this job.

You got to meet Cameron Diaz and Jeff Bridges?

Yeah. It’s crazy, eh? Five years ago, I was this scientist with my head up my own butt looking at how bats crawl and now I’m doing different stuff. It’s all about being excited about the world and waking up in the morning and thinking, “All right, let’s learn how much we can. Let’s have a fun day.” I did that for many years as a scientist, and now I do it as the host of Daily Planet.

The world’s rewarding, an incredible place, and it’s a wonderful privilege to spend my time exploring it. But I’m not the only person with a job like that. It’s very similar to just being a scientist.

It’s interesting how connected the two are.

I spent a long time training to be a scientist and thought that was going to be my career trajectory. I still spend a lot of time reading scientific papers and connecting with my scientist friends, and that’s shaped how I see the world.

What I’m trying to get across every night on Daily Planet is that if you explore the world and really engage with it, it’s just beautiful. Science is a great way to see beauty that you can’t really see otherwise. The world is beautiful if you see it through a scientific lens, and so trying to share that beauty with everyone who watches Daily Planet is a wonderful challenge and very rewarding, and I still get to see that beauty, which makes it very rewarding for me personally.