Podcast host Dan Riskin reflects on science and storytelling
In December 2020, Dan Riskin interviewed University of Alberta Professor and Nobel Laureate Michael Houghton, who co-discovered hepatitis-C in 1989.
“What do we know about hepatitis-C that we could apply to COVID-19?” asked Riskin, a U of A alum and prominent science journalist.
Houghton’s answer stuck with Riskin: “He said ‘No, no. What do we learn from COVID that I can apply to hep-C?’ Look at the latest developments in any field, he said, and figure out how to apply that to what you’re working on. He’s going to look for the new technology, the new trick. Well, that’s the beauty of science.”
Learning from what happened last century, last year, and even last month. That is, indeed, the beauty of science. Continuous learning is the spirit that drives all progress, including Scimar’s groundbreaking type 2 diabetes research. And it’s the thread that is woven throughout Scimar’s Inside the Breakthrough podcast.
“Science is a process, not a destination. When I’m talking to undergrads, I often tell them about this revelation I had in grad school,” reflects Riskin, who holds a PhD in zoology from Cornell University. “I always had this idea that you learn until you know your craft, then you’re good. You just go apply your craft. But with science, you never finish learning. You’re constantly trying to learn your craft, and the craft just changes constantly. There’s never a finish line.”
Perhaps at no other time in recent history has science been in the spotlight the way it has been during COVID-19. With people talking about science every day and the speedy development of coronavirus vaccines, people are taking a new interest in the role science plays in our lives and that bodes well for the future, says Riskin.
“I mean, science wins, right? Pandemics happen; that’s just part of being an organism. But to have a vaccine within a year, that’s insane,” says Riskin. “Science stepped up in a way that is just so cool. With all the politics and celebrity TikTok videos, with all the things humanity’s wasting its time on, science showed up to the game and just crushed it. We’re hearing from scientists every day and seeing how the scientific process works, right before our eyes. Anybody who’s old enough to be paying attention can see scientists making mistakes and learning from them in real time, right?”
It’s Riskin’s enthusiasm for science and his passion for making it accessible to the masses through storytelling that drew him to Scimar’s Inside the Breakthrough. Riskin spins a couple of science yarns in each episode, taking a peek at processes, projects, and people who have changed the world. It’s plain language and plain fun, even if you’ve never cracked the spine of a science book.
“The podcast is good fun and makes a beautiful connection between the past and the present,” says Riskin. “We have this idea that Galileo and Newton figured it out and we’re all just resting on our laurels. What happened in Galileo’s day and in Newton’s day is still happening today. The scientific process is the same. The experience of the scientist is often the same. And the beauty of it is the same. So the podcast isn’t just a call to appreciate the science heroes of the past, it’s a chance to look at science today. It’s all connected.”
For a current perspective, the podcast zeroes in on Dr. W. Wayne Lautt and his pioneering work on human metabolism, type 2 diabetes, and hepatic insulin-sensitizing substance (the HISS hormone), revealing a little more of Lautt’s 30-year research journey in each episode.
“I’m really impressed by how driven and focused Dr. Lautt is, and how he’s been able to build a whole community around his work,” says Riskin.
While drive and focus characterize Dr. Lautt’s work, the same can be said for Dan Riskin’s colourful career as a scientist and science communicator. It all started with a high school fascination with bats. He ultimately joined a lab at York University in Toronto and found himself studying these flying mammals first in Costa Rica and later in a dozen other countries, earning 20 publication credits along the way.
Along with obscure bat habits, he also discovered that he loved presenting his findings at conferences: “It sounds so boring, but giving a science talk in front of an audience was when I really felt like I was in my element.”
His command of the conference hall led to invitations to speak to non-science audiences, which led to media interviews, guest appearances on major talk shows, and eventually a hosting spot on Daily Planet, the Discovery Channel’s flagship program. Today, he’s a sought-after science commentator, he’s collaborating with his scientist wife on a project about how best to deliver conservation messages, and he’s working on three book projects, including a children’s book due out in 2022.
He’s drawn to exciting projects that celebrate and elevate science—projects like Inside the Breakthrough.
“I’ve really come to appreciate the craft of science communication,” he says. “And it’s really fun to work on this particular podcast because it’s been so fun to weave together these great stories and then tie them into the story of Scimar. Evolutionarily, we’re built to listen to interesting stories and I hope people engage with them.”
Dan Riskin, PhD, is a biologist, science journalist, and author. He is best known as the former host of Daily Planet on Discovery, and as the author of the bestselling book Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You. For several years, Dan worked as a bat scientist, travelling around the world to understand the biomechanics of bat movement. But in 2011 he left a tenure-track position to focus on communicating science to popular audiences. Dan frequently appears as a science specialist on TV news shows (CTV, BNN, CNN, CBS), and has been interviewed by Anderson Cooper, Craig Ferguson, Jay Leno, and Mehmet Oz. Dan has hosted science TV shows on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, CTV, and CBC. He lives in Toronto.
Follow Dan Riskin on Twitter: twitter.com/riskindan