Ziya Tong is a correspondent for this summer’s fast-paced season of Nova Science Now, which airs on PBS starting June 30th. She appears in three of the shows, which vary in ‘sizzling’ subject matter. When I spoke with her, she was friendly, cool and collected, yet extremely excited about all the adventures she had while filming the expeditions (such as getting up close and personal with cuddly walruses). She is very knowledgeable on many earthly subjects, having multiple years of experience under her belt from Wired Science as well as Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel (which you can see her on now!) Ziya has the presence of a star when on camera but most importantly a certain talent for making science fun! The show sounds like a great summer treat.
“The fast-paced science magazine series NOVA scienceNOW returns on
June 30 on PBS with a new, 10-week season full of fresh new perspectives, fascinating
scientists, cutting-edge innovations, and provocative stories from the frontlines of science, technology, and medicine. Hosted by renowned author and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series also introduces a brand-new correspondent this season, Ziya Tong (former host and producer of Wired Science).”
ASIANCE: Right now I am speaking with you in Toronto and did not know if you were actually from Canada as well.
Ziya: I was born in England but lived in Vancouver most my life. I’m actually half Macedonian, my mother is from there, or the former Yugoslavia and my father is from I guess what is now the former Hong Kong? The special administered region of China.
ASIANCE: You have done much more before and during NOVA but how did you begin with them originally?
Ziya: I was a host and field producer for Wired Science, which was a national science show on PBS and then NOVA actually contacted me, which was wonderful.
ASIANCE: So how did your interest in science and this career begin?
Ziya: This is my fourth science show and I’ve been doing this for quite some time now. Way back when I was 21, I went to Africa for the first time and have always had a love for natural history and travel and talking with brilliant minds. So it’s all come together in this occupation I suppose!
ASIANCE: For the shows you are a correspondent for with Nova Science Now this summer (three various shows) what are some of the highlights? It all sounds so amazing.
Ziya: Yeah, I mean it’s fantastic because we get to go on some amazing expeditions and go to really unexpected places. I was in Berkeley most recently working with walruses, which was really fantastic. I was telling my friends how when you first meet a walrus and greet them, I mean they are the size of a Kia car, they are huge, like 2,000 pounds. And they come up to you and greet you and have these strange bristles all over- whisker-like bristles and they just sort of come right up to your stomach or sniff all the way to you. I guess they use them to find stuff to eat too and it’s as though they can kind of feel what’s going on in your stomach.
Basically you blow into their nose to greet them and they close their eyes and flutter their eyelids and have this heavenly little walrus look and it’s a very cute experience. They are incredibly, incredibly smart creatures and we were looking at creativity and walrus vocalization. Another great expedition I got to go on was where they store nuclear waste in New Mexico with the Department of Energy. We went 2,000 feet underground and were looking at ancient salt that was a quarter of a billion years old. And we were looking for some secret organic material-which I can’t tell you about because you’re going to have to wait until the show airs. So big adventures! I love big adventures and that’s one of the things I get to do working with NOVA.
ASIANCE: So these are very significant things that viewers will learn?
Ziya: Definitely; very significant things. Well, the science is very rigorous, so there’s such a broad range of the stories we cover. Everything from the Gackle Ridge to ancient organic material that’s a quarter of a billion years old to walrus intelligence. It’s a very broad range of stories.
ASIANCE: What else makes walruses so special, for example?
Ziya: I think walruses have gotten a bit of the short end of the stick. They are very intelligent and we give a lot of the credit to dolphins and seals for being really highly intelligent. Walruses are very smart, so they probably were mimicking you. They are absolutely amazing creatures. They are called “those who walk with their teeth” because they use their tusks to pull them up on the ice…they are very cool creatures.
ASIANCE: What has been some of the most amazing animals or places you have experienced in your job with NOVA or with other expeditions?
Ziya: I host a show here called Daily Planet. We get to cover a lot of amazing things here too but I’ll tell you about that a bit later. Places I have been or animals I think are amazing? I went to a place called Namaqualand that I completely fell in love with. David Attenborough actually covered it in ‘The Private Life of Plants’ and there’s just millions and millions of bulbs in this area. Once a year the desert blooms and as far as the eye can see it’s millions of flowers and as the wind blows they sort of bow to the East and bow to the West as you’re sitting there. It’s one of the Wonders of the World as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve also been to Madagascar, which I loved. It’s another fascinating place because the flora and fauna there are just astounding. Mozambique was probably the most amazing place for diving for me because I got to dive with whale sharks and mantarays among other things. I love the Aye Aye (Laughter). I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Aye Aye? They have these incredibly long digits, which let them reach for grubs and stuff like that. They are pretty insane looking animals. Actually I am going to look on the Wired site because I posted some of my favorites. Oh the Kapibarra. I love the Kapibarra. But they are a bit of a nuisance in Brazil. There is a certain area where the Kapibarra are native to and a lot of people have been trying to get rid of them but I love those critters so I want to make sure they survive.
Oh, I used to have a blog on Wired Science. You would love the Oar Fish. The Pigmy Marmoset you can’t go wrong with. The Oar Fish is so amazing because it’s so huge. And I would have to say the Orchid Mantis.
ASIANCE: Can you talk more about this blog?
Ziya: Well I think the better site since that is older, is if you go to: Discoverychannel.ca/dailyplanet. We do stuff on that every single day and there is stuff on there that is not geolocked so people all over the world can see it. You can watch it every single day. It’s a daily science show we do.
ASIANCE: Who are some people in the field you have enjoyed working alongside?
Ziya: I absolutely adore working with Jay. He is my mentor and friend and we basically laugh our heads off every day. He is so established and an icon here in Canada. Working with him is inspiring.
ASIANCE: So what are your most recent thoughts about the environment, or nature having covered so much?
Ziya: Obviously I am super passionate about working with things in this field. I have been working with environmental causes for a long time now. I started this thing called the Ethical Media Division a couple years ago and it was working with organizations like Greenpeace to use advertising to bring public awareness to the public. But I’m very cautious. Because there are a lot of issues with ‘Greenwashing’ so people have to, well, how should I put it, I have a big responsibility in the media to pick out environmental stories which are the most important to cover. We cover stuff like that all the time. We just did a thing called “Greenweek” here on Discovery Channel and that was an entire week of green-themed shows. That’s the thing with environmental topics we are doing because we don’t want to be so gloom and doom about it. Here in Canada, I just watched an amazing documentary called H2Oil and it’s about the Tar Sands. Do you know anything about the Tar Sands here in Canada?
ASIANCE: Oh, well not enough!
Ziya: Basically it takes about four barrels of water to process one barrel of oil here and all the water (the tailing ponds) used to process the barrels. They are so massive you can see them from space, and basically what is happening is these tailing ponds are leaking into actual river sources and the fish there have gigantic tumors and muskrat noses are bleeding.
That’s especially an issue I feel very strongly about. And on another note, especially being Asian, this is something we should definitely talk about, in a huge way, something I care deeply about, is Shark Fin soup. My last name, Tong, means soup in Chinese. The shark population has dropped drastically. It is basically 90% annihilated at this point. There are a lot of illegal activities that take place everywhere from as far away as Costa Rica with the sort of Shark Fin mafia that goes on there. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Shark Water. A friend of mine produced it and is in the film. It’s an amazing film. But if there’s one environmental cause I’d like to bring to light it is to absolutely stop eating shark fin soup. Try Chicken Vermicelli soup instead but NOT Shark Fin soup. That’s what I meant about the ‘greenwashing’. (Wiki definition of greenwashing – organizations that attempt to show that they are adopting practices beneficial to the environment)
Green lifestyle right now is about green ‘chic’ but we can’t just be looking into buying our way out of environmental problems by buying more and more products to save the day, necessarily. We have to buy things that last. I kind of believe in the idea of future antiques. I know this is kind of tangential but so many people buy for example, Ikea furniture. How many people in the future are ever going to hand off their Ikea desk to their great-great grandchildren. Maybe they will if we run out of resources but that’s about it, right? I think one of the key things as an environmentalist is to be aware of what we purchase. There are so many topics, plastics is another one of them.
ASIANCE: And will you be visiting Asia?
Ziya: I’m really hoping to visit Asia again soon. I still have family there, so yeah. It’s almost impossible to be a Eurasian person and identify with the idea of borders. The idea of countries, I mean. I have never been able to see it as anything other than this planet.
There are very few Asian women and women in science broadcasting. To pull in more women to this field it would be thrilling. If you look at the people who represented science in the past it was basically all old Caucasian men, right? I’m not surprised that we’re shifting gears a bit because science needs to be represented in many different ways.
ASIANCE: Is there anything else we should know?
Ziya: Well there are so many things I would love to talk more about and I can also tell you more about specific environmental issues. For example, the North Pacific Gyre, I’m sure you’ve heard about it, the great garbage patch the size of Texas?
ASIANCE: Yes, I’ve heard of it. Between California and Hawaii?
Ziya: Yes. I covered that when I was working for Wired. I basically hung out on a beach and it was all garbage basically. It was an amazing scene during high tide. Sometimes the garbage just piles up a few feet high. You see everything from airplane parts, syringes, medical waste, and plastic bottles. Every few feet we walked we’d come across florescent bulbs and these contained mercury. That’s actually a tiny percentage of mercury, a lot comes from volcanoes but they break open and enter the environment.
ASIANCE: So how would people ever get rid of the garbage?
Ziya: Well the huge problem with this is plastic does not biodegrade it photo-degrades, which means it slowly breaks down into smaller pieces when the sun hits it. It becomes small or particulate matter, invisible to the eye. It’s being found in plankton and going all the way up the food chain to shrimp which eat it as well. There’s not much we can do but halt our production of plastic or use biodegradable plastic, which we are starting to do.
ASIANCE: Thank you so much for all the info and it will be great to watch you this summer!
Some additional sites where you can see Ziya or the projects she has worked on:www.discoverychannel.ca/dailyplanet
Wired Blog: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/blogs/ztong.html
The shows that Ziya is a correspondent for on Nova Science Now this summer:
Secrets in the Salt ( Airs 7/14/09)
Last summer, in a tunnel 2,000 feet below the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, microbiologist Jack Griffith made a phenomenal discovery—the oldest known organic molecules on earth. He was exploring tunnels infested with black widow spiders in the main U.S. nuclear waste repository on a hunch that the ancient salt deposits there would be pristine and uncontaminated by groundwater. Griffith’s detective work began when biochemist Bonnie Baxter sent him samples from the Great Salt Lake that turned out to be swarming with bacterial viruses trapped in the spaces between individual salt crystals. That prompted Griffith to wonder if salt deposits might represent a library of ancient life forms reaching back even farther in time than fossils in amber. Renowned for his electron microscope photography, Griffith now claims to have captured not only 250 million-year old DNA from the Roswell deposits but also microscopic cellulose fibers that look like tangled angel hair pasta. If Griffith is right, his twisted fibers may represent the earliest surviving plant remains on earth. This summer, Griffith will push the hunt for the earliest macromolecules ever further as he searches in 400 million year old salt deposits 1,000 feet under Detroit City. When scientists go hunting for life on other planets, Griffith concludes, they might do as well to search for cellulose fibers rather than DNA or microbes.
Marathon Mouse (Airs 7/21/09)
Ron Evans (HHMI) at the Salk Institute is running mice ragged. He is trying to figure out how to improve their endurance in a lasting way—a feat not yet achieved by the many available performance-enhancing drugs. Recently, Evans’ team showed that by modifying a master control gene which increases the production of fat-burning slow-twitch muscle fibers, they could enable mice to run twice as long as their unmodified siblings. He called these genetically modified mice “marathon mice” since they could run such long distances.
Now, Evans has found two drugs that have the same increased endurance effect. One of the drugs even allowed mice to run 44% longer than normal mice, without any previous exercise. Both drugs have been approved by the FDA for other uses, raising the specter of abuse: In fact, Evans’ lab developed a blood and urine test for the International Olympics Committee to detect these drugs in athletes. But those who stand to benefit most from these drugs might not be athletes at all: They are those with little to no muscle mass, such as kids with muscular dystrophy or the frail elderly, who don’t have the option of hopping on a treadmill to build strength and endurance.
Sea Lions (Airs 7/28/09)
Sea lions and walruses are often dismissed as circus clowns, but researchers are now finding that these animals are remarkably intelligent. Scientists have shown sea lions to be capable of higher order reasoning that few other animals have demonstrated. Studies of walrus and sea lion vocal and intellectual abilities are also shedding light on the evolutionary roots of human language.