top of page

Interview with Jay Ingram

📷 National Speakers Bureau

Journalist: Sarah Jafari

Sarah Jafari: Hello and welcome to SciSection. My name is Sarah Jafari. I am a fourth year English major at York University, and I'm also a volunteer journalist here at SciSection. Today, I'm here with Jay Ingram. Jay was a co-host of the Discovery Channel's show daily planet for 16 years, and is also the author of the book series, The Science of Why. Jay, I'm so excited to be able to talk with you today. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Jay Ingram: I'm happy to be here. And I'm also happy that an English major is interested in science.

Sarah Jafari: Right? Isn't that such a weird relationship between English and science, but I feel like you have also in your career brought those two together.

Jay Ingram: I actually think now I have to be a little careful saying this, but some of the best science communicators I know didn't necessarily have a university background in science. And, you know, I think coming at science from outside science makes it easier to sometimes get in the minds of the audience who aren't necessarily science grads either.

Sarah Jafari: Exactly. And that's really our passion and purpose here at SciSection: to make science accessible for everyone who really isn't into science.

Jay Ingram: And also, you know, if you do it well, your audience, if they weren't interested in science to begin with will start to understand that. As my partner who runs a science center here in Calgary, says, it's the greatest adventure story in the world. And, you can have negative opinions about science and scientists. But if you sort of put that to the side and say, what are scientists finding out about us and our place in the world and in the universe, it is an adventure story. So it's always been a little difficult for me to understand why, if you're told about it in the right way, you wouldn't be interested in it.

Sarah Jafari: That is such a great point. And it's good that we carry the same mindset here at SciSection. So, Jay, I kind of want to start out by playing a fun little game if that's okay with you, I call it burning questions with Sarah. Do you want to play?

Jay Ingram: Do I have a choice? No, no, no, no. Sure.

Sarah Jafari: Perfect. So if you could get the answer to one question, what would it be?

Jay Ingram: I've always been really interested in the Neanderthal people because they co-existed for quite a long time with that variety of hominine that gave rise to modern people. You know, they split off in different ways and migrated to different parts of the world, but they co you know, if you focus on Europe and I don't want to be Eurocentric, but it's a good example. They coexisted with modern humans for quite a while and then died out. And yet the accumulating evidence is it's not that they were dumb. It's not, they were clumsy or oaf-like as they have been portrayed in the past. Nobody really knows exactly what happened, but they died out about 32 to 34,000 years ago, clinging onto existence. And like in Gibraltar, the very Southern tip of Spain. So I want to know what happened to them. We all carry some, you know, 2% of our genome is Neanderthal genes. So I think we have a stake in the, in the answer to this question. So that would be one that if I get that before my career is over, I'd be happy.

Sarah Jafari: That was a great answer. So let's start off by you telling us a little about your career and your history as a science broadcaster.

Jay Ingram: If anyone listening, and that might include you, wants to communicate science as a living as a career, whether you do it full-time or part-time, there would be two things. I think about my career that might be relevant. One is I did my undergrad in microbiology at the university of Alberta, and it actually wasn't until third year that I had a course that really turned me on to science, a virology course, actually. And I learned about those viruses that attack bacteria. And it seems so esoteric, right? They're called bacteriophage, but the way they work is so incredibly interesting how they land on the surface of a bacterial cell, inject their DNA into the bacterial cell, and then their DNA. Co-Opts the whole cellular machinery of the bacterium to stop doing bacterial things and start making new viruses. I just thought this was the most sensational biological idea I'd ever come across. And it was somehow around that time. And I can't pinpoint it, that I started being interested in talking about science, to people who weren't scientists. Then I went to UT and did a master's degree and even became more confirmed in this idea that I wanted to quote unquote, bring science to the people, but I had no clue how to do it. And so what did I like there just didn't seem to be any avenues. This was a long time ago and the nature of things, which everybody knows on CBC and with David Suzuki, there was a nature of things, but it was to physics, prophet in a classroom doing it. There was one science writer in Canada of the global mail. Like the scene was totally different from what it is now. So getting my master's, I was faced with a decision, but one half of the decision was I'd have no clue what to do. So I'll start a PhD. So I actually went to McMaster, started a PhD in prenatal biology, a really cool topic I had, but I, it was hopeless. Like I just, I was diverted away from academia so quickly that it was a waste of time. For me. It was a waste of time for my supervisor. I think I lasted maybe four months in my PhD. He might've been the shortest PhD attempt ever. Got a job. Luckily teaching at Ryerson, teaching biology and chemistry at the time Ryerson had a, a radio station, which was now I think it's called jazz 91.1, but they did educational broadcasting and they invited faculty to if they were wanting to learn how to write a script for radio to come on over and do it. So out of the entire Ryerson faculty, I think four people did that. And I was the only one that ended up writing a script. So here's the things are, even though like, if you'd asked me that before I got to Ryerson, what do you want to do? Make films on TV, right? Radio would have been at the bottom of my list. I just hadn't even thought about it. And I think the only piece of advice I would ever give anybody is when you see an opportunity, no matter how risky or a little bit different from what you were thinking, it might be, if it aligns with what you think you really want to do, do it. And, you know, I won't go on with the rest of it, but from doing radio there, I was doing radio in the CBC. Then I hosted quirks and quarks. Then I went to discovery for about the last 25 years. I've been writing books too, but it was lucky in a way that the job happened and the invite to do radio happened. But when those lucky moments come up, you got to act, you've got to run. If that door opens a little bit and you gotta run through it anyway, then Daily Planet happened and I just kept writing books all the way through.

Sarah Jafari: Right. And do you enjoy being like a freelance creator more? Or did you like having that kind of pressure on you?

Jay Ingram: So and it, isn't just the pressure it's really, do you like sitting in front of your computer all by yourself writing or do you like going to a studio in pre COVID days and working with a bunch of people that you really like and who are so good at what they do that there actually, isn't nearly as much pressure as it might appear. So I give, I'll give you an example and you got to remember, this is in the days when television was actually done on tape, right. And we would sometimes start no daily planet. People would already be watching the first part of the show and we hadn't put together the last 15 minutes yet. So we were still in the studio. People were watching, we had to get the rest of the show done, or it would have been a complete disaster. But, you know, I remember that being, yeah, a little bit of pressure, but I also remember no problem. We're going to do that. And we were very lucky at Daily Planet because there is pressure in what you might generically call a TV newsroom, which was what we were. And they're renowned notorious for being evil places to work. But we never had that. I'm still friends with many of the people that I worked with, even though I haven't done it for like since 2011. It was just, it was just such a great workplace. And we were doing something unique. We were the only primetime hour long, five day a week sign show in the world. So, you know, how can you not be proud of participating in something like that?

Sarah Jafari: So as someone who's received several honorary degrees and awards, what advice can you give to someone who is also interested in becoming involved in science, journalism? Like what steps do you think they would have to take?

Jay Ingram: Well, the first thing is don't worry about awards and honorary degrees, because if you stick around long enough, you might get one, but in the end, it doesn't materially affect your life. Except you can, if you want to, you can list them after your name. I'm very shy about dispensing advice, just because it's my situation when I started, which was decades ago is pretty different. Like if I were in your position like right now and say, you want it to be, you wanted to communicate science in some form. I would like to look at journalism school, but that might not be the right choice. What I think people interested in doing this should do is really think hard about what turns you on the most. Like, if you like science, why do you like science? What is it about science? Do you love talking about science? If so, why? Like, is it, is it a passion of yours? Do you love the details? Do you love the adventure aspect of it? What because it isn't always possible to do this, but if you can possibly set yourself up to feed on that passion, then that really is what you should do. And, you know, I'm, I'm not a good example for that, because even though referring to what I told you earlier I knew by the time I was kind of halfway or part way through grad school, that this is what I wanted to do. I had no idea how to do it. And I ended up, you know, it was probably a mistake to start a PhD, but I didn't know what else to do like that. You know, when you're a science person that kind of seemed to be the route to go. It's a little different now, because there are options you could do TikTok videos, you can do Instagram, you can write a blog, you can do a podcast, but you've, it's really important to sort of sort through those things and think this is what I like the best. So I'm to try doing this, you know, like safe, secure jobs in communicating science are pretty rare. So, you know, maybe you do it part-time at first, maybe you get a job that gives you enough money that you can survive. And the and then work on your communication skills because, you know, you don't do it. There's no such thing as an overnight sensation. Anybody that's good at this has been doing it for a long time.

Sarah Jafari: During your research for the science of why, what kind of surprised you the most?

Jay Ingram: Questions like did Shakespeare actually write all the Shakespearian plays or, and, or what's Robin hood, a real person, these forays into history and literature. I love them, like the Robin hood story don't get me started on it, cause I'll go on for quite a long time, but it's fascinating because here's a, a legend that everybody knows, and we identify with because how could you not identify with a bunch of rogues who Rob rich people and give their money to the poor and kill the King's deer in the, in the King's forest and live in the woods? Like, that's just amazing. Unfortunately, there's really not a lot of evidence that Robin, a Robin hood actually existed. So I loved those kinds of, I do love history, you know, is it true that Isaac Newton watched an Apple dropped from a tree and then decided that, or understood how gravity works. These are great, great stories that are insights into people. And, you know people are at the heart of every good story, even science stories. So yeah, you know, I think how nature works in the universe are really, really interesting subjects, but in the end and daily planet was a perfect example of this. It's really all about people that TV shows would not have worked. Had we not had interesting guests, it just so happened that the guests we had were somehow involved in science and tech. So I guess that was one of the surprises. The other was how sometimes questions and answers fall into your lap. There was a paper in science about it, when I was writing the book, so let's say eight months ago, nine months ago arguing that the year five 36 was the worst year ever because there were in Europe and Asia, there were volcanic eruptions that happened on our side of the world. Absolutely blotted out the sun, people starved to death, you couldn't grow crops, it was cold. And then there was a PA, the first version of the black death, the Justinian plague happened. And so it was argued. This is the worst year ever. And I thought, I read the article. I thought, actually, that makes a great question. What was the worst year ever? Of course then having 2020 means that there is some competition for that title. So sometimes I was just able to read a piece of curious and interesting research, turn it into a question.

Sarah Jafari: Right. And as an English major, I have to know, did Shakespeare write all his Shakespearean Plays?

Jay Ingram: So definitely he co-wrote. So definitely some of them, he didn't write and, I don't ask me to name which ones, cause I can't remember, but some he had a co-writer or even in one or two cases, two co-writers and then there are some that seem unambiguously. His issue is with some of them it's known who his co authors were, but in many of them, if you're going to argue, it was never Shakespeare, which people do, right. Because he seems relatively unlettered, he didn't travel. How does he know about Denmark? If he's never been to Denmark, et cetera, et cetera, there really is no convincing replacement for, and that's just the thing. People have been many aversions in many individuals have been offered up as the substitute, but it's just not convincing the other cool part about it is that science plays a role in this because can computer analyze the text and look for trends and habits of, of a particular writer, including Shakespeare, and then see if the texts in the plays in question reflect those patterns or not. So although it sounds like a historical literary question it's actually scientific and the same is true of Robin hood.

Sarah Jafari: Right. That's really interesting. I had never even considered that maybe Shakespeare didn't write his plays. That's crazy.

Jay Ingram: And there was even a big, there was a movie about it a few years ago, arguing that wasn't him at all, but you know what? He is still the main man in Shakespeare in place, as far as I'm concerned.

Sarah Jafari: Have you ever changed any of your habits as a result of anything you learned through conducting research for the science of why?

Jay Ingram: Yeah, so not so much for the science of why, but I did write a book called the end of memory about Alzheimer's disease and I've had people in my family who had it. So I've paid like my mother did. So I've paid pretty close attention to that part of Alzheimer's research that is informative about what you can do to lower your risk. And there's a whole bunch of things that you can do to minimize risk. I mean, you know, in rare cases, there are dominant genes that if you inherit one of them, you're going to get it. But those are extremely rare, really less than 1% of all Alzheimer's and the rest of it, you may inherit genes that tilt your risk a little bit, one way or the other, but there are also other things like a proper diet, get enough sleep get exercise, maintain social contact, which is harder and harder for people as they get older. And you know, what two of them, most critical things, if you have well, hearing loss is a risk associated with Alzheimer's disease. At first, nobody knew what the connection was. Could it be that hearing loss is just an early hint that Alzheimer's is coming associated with the disease itself, or is it the lack of social contact, the loss of social contact when you don't hear what's going on around you and I wear hearing AIDS. So I'm very familiar with it. Is it that because lack of social contact is a risk for Alzheimer's. It looks now no early evidence is that if you wear hearing AIDS, you minimize that risk. But you know, don't get me started on hearing AIDS. Like people are so reluctant to wear them because they make you look old well. And meanwhile, people have got earbuds hanging out of their ears, right? And that doesn't make you look old. So somehow, but it's a stigma. And if people only knew that, you know, the average weight from the time, somebody is kind of aware that they have hearing loss till the time they go get their hearing checked. The average lapse of time is seven years. If people knew that it was somehow connected with Alzheimer's, they wouldn't wait seven years. So there's, there's an example, but diet, you know, is it's the sort of typical, like a good Alzheimer's died as the same kind of diet that you'd use for good health. You know, he not don't eat too much red meat. Don't eat, don't have too much dairy eat lots of vegetables, you know, Mediterranean dog, whatever. So I've done that with respect to that anyway, that's and you know, the other thing that's always true in communicating science, no matter what you're doing, the more eyes you're on it, the more ears hear it, the better it will be. And you've got to steel yourself for criticism. We have a favorite phrase. Some of us are called kill your darlings, which is, let's say you're writing an essay, but you're stuck. There's a place where you're stuck at quite often. It's true that you're stuck because you've come up with the fabulous phrase that you really, really love, but actually it's inhibited in the rest of your writing because it's taking you down a path that isn't easy to navigate. And if you kill your darling phrase, just take it out, you'll find. And that somehow it opens up and you're able to write it better. You just can't be too attached to the stuff that you've produced that you love, because you always got to remember, it's not about you. It's about the audience. My, my typical example of this is a scientist is asked by a local community group. Let's say to give a talk about his or her work. And the first thought that often enters their mind is Oh, so I'll tell them about the experiments that we're doing right now. The actual correct question or thought is, I wonder what they want to know about you put it on the audience, not yourself. And I think many scientists would be shocked to know exactly what audiences want to know. Now, sometimes it's predictable. Like if you're giving a talk on Alzheimer's disease, then people want to know really three things. Am I going to get it? If I'm at high risk, what can I do to mitigate that risk? And if I do get it, what then, I mean, I'm pretty confident. Those are the three common questions, but it's not so clear if a biochemist is asked to speak about the work in their lab and it might be as simple as what's it like to work in a lab? Like what are those grad students and postdocs or whatever they're called, do you know? And I mean, scientists think scientists approach, research questions in a different way than you and I might. And you never lose if you start by wondering what the audience wants.

Sarah Jafari: Right. Well, Jay, what are the other projects that you're working on at the moment?

Jay Ingram: So with a couple of friends were trying to launch a podcast. I have to say it's a lot of work. And I kind of thought, well, you know, having a background in radio, it would be easier than it is, but it's not, but we're doing it. But you know, I'm always, I always keep track of what's going on in science. And always trying to think about how certain kinds of information about science might be incorporated. I'll tell you one thing which I liked doing, but we haven't been able to do much lately is that I give science talks with a band and we incorporate rock and roll basically into a science talk based on the premise that, you know, science talks are fine, but surely a science talk with a bat would be better. And we've, we, we do like whole programs. We did, we did one called lunacy about humans going to the moon. Cause we did it for the 50th anniversary of the first planning in 2019 and you know, incorporated a lot of music and a couple of actors and really turned it into much more of a presentation, a show than a talk we've done one called the giant walkthrough brain where we actually moved through the brain and stop in various places and talk about curious and intriguing individuals who are, are prominent in the history of brand science. But you know, doing that during COVID is kind of a non-starter. So we're just biding time until we can do it again.

Sarah Jafari: That's wonderful. Jay, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. It was honestly such an honor and a delight to be able to speak with you. And I know a lot of our other listeners just like me grew up watching you on the daily planet. So it was just a great experience altogether.

Jay Ingram: Well, thank you. It was really fun.

Sarah Jafari: Thank you. So that's it for this week, everyone make sure you check out our Instagram @Scisection. I'm Sarah Jafari and thank you so much for listening. Take care and stay safe.


bottom of page