May 5, 2010

Discovery Channel Names Alumnus as Host

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Cornell’s alumni comprise a long list of television personalities. From Carl Sagan and Spencer Wells to Bill Nye, these personalities have transformed scientific knowledge into entertaining, informative television. The newest member of this group finds himself answering life’s greatest questions.

Daniel Riskin Ph.D ‘06 is a Cornell alumnus who obtained his doctorate in zoology from Cornell University. In the fall, he will enter the City College campus of The City University of New York as an Associate Professor.

“I will say that I, for a long time, thought that would be the best job on earth – to have your own show on the Discovery channel,” explained Riskin.

Last month, the Discovery Channel named Riskin as the host of a multi-year programming event, entitled “Curiousity: The Questions of Life.” The television series will run for five years.

“The show is about the big questions of life.  Every show focuses on a big question, like why do we die? Do we have to die? Could science take death away? If we could live forever, should we?” he related.  “The questions are the kinds of questions that everyone asks.”

Riskin recently shot a show about fear.

“I’m supposed not only to analyze it, like a Vulcan, but I’m supposed to go through it like Captain Kirk,” he explained.  “So, they threw me out of an airplane.”

Riskin and a retired-army officer, a former bomb defuser in Iraq, jumped out of the plane while heart-monitors recorded their physiological response.

The show combines this sort of experimentation with expert, scientific analysis to answer the big questions.

According to an Apr. 12 press release from Discovery, “Riskin will lead viewers on his personal journey to seek answers to each question through experience, experimentation and his encounters with an array of the world’s leading experts.”

Riskin, himself, is an expert. His work examines the “functional consequences of diversity” in bats.

“There’s tons of diversity in the bats. The smallest one weighs less than a penny; the biggest one has a six foot wing span,” he said. “Different bats have different abilities, and there’s so much diversity there.”

Bats exhibit a great range of characteristics, differing in their relative sizes, diets, behaviors and mating systems.  By studying bat diversity, Riskin hopes to understand how form and shape relate to performance and behavior.

Riskin will continue to research while shooting the show.

Last Thursday, Riskin returned to the university to lecture in Vertebrates: Structure, Function and Evolution (Evolutionary Biology 2740).  As a graduate student, Riskin served as a teaching assistant for Prof. Betty McGuire, ecology and evolutionary biology.

“She has me come back, when I can, to give a bat lecture just to cover the bases because she knows I get all excited and that gets all the students excited,” Riskin explained.

Riskin recognizes that outreach is an important aspect of modern science, and he believes that television provides a vital tool for science communication.

Whereas Riskin may communicate important information to 20 students in a Cornell classroom, he recognizes his ability to communicate with a large audience on television.

“T.V. is a good vehicle to bring things to people that they wouldn’t normally go explore,” he suggested.  “You don’t need to be in a third year, Cornell, science, specialization class to understand what’s cool about a vampire bat running on a treadmill.”

Riskin suggested that his enthusiasm and his ability to explain complex ideas qualifies him to host.

“I have to bring things down to a level where I can understand it, and digest it, and then put it back on that big shelf,” he explained. “And the other thing is that I get really jazzed.  And so, enthusiasm plays well.”

When asked how he received the job, he responded by saying, “How do you get your own T.V. show? Man, I wish I knew.”

Before earning the hosting job, Riskin provided commentary for the History Channel’s “Evolve” and Animal Planet’s “Monsters Inside Me.”

“I have always been looking for opportunities, but I haven’t exactly been making them. But when they’ve presented themselves, I’ve gone for it.”

“Curiousity: The Questions of Life” will debut next January, and the show is set to run for five years.

Original Author: A. Drew Muscente