by Sarah Treleaven, BA’01
Ziya Tong, MA’99, tried to turn down her first big break. Tong, the co-host of Discovery Channel’s flagship show Daily Planet, had been approached by a casting agent who thought she’d be perfect for an Apple ad. Tong initially said no thanks.
“I didn’t want to be a model,” she explains. Still, she was interested in pursuing a media career and realized that doing the ad would provide an opportunity to test herself in front of the camera. “Sometimes you have to throw yourself into the fire and do the things you’re a little nervous about doing,” she says.
In talking to the self-assured science journalist, it’s hard to imagine that anything makes her nervous. And Tong sounds like she’s found the perfect job. She is palpably excited about the science she covers on her TV show. On the afternoon we spoke, she had just returned from taping a segment related to the recent Mars landing. “We were embedded at the jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California,” she says. “It was an amazing, historic event to be a part of.”
Daily Planet is the Gemini-nominated Tong’s fourth science show—following Nova scienceNOW, The Leading Edge and Wired Science. She was born in London, grew up in Hong Kong and moved to Canada when she was 11. She is fluent in Cantonese, and working to improve her Arabic, French and Mandarin.
After completing her BA at the University of British Columbia, Tong moved on to McGill for a master’s degree in communications. It doesn’t take much prompting before a flood of Montreal memories return to her, including late nights and free popcorn at the Bifteck, the beloved St. Laurent Street dive long popular with struggling young artists. Her degree focused on digital capabilities in developing countries and her first job after graduation focused on providing news programming in underdeveloped countries in a series of languages, including Urdu, Bangla and Swahili.
Now, Tong says that increasing science literacy is one of her chief goals. “I love sharing and exploring the amazing and extraordinary wonders that are on the planet every day. It’s almost like a teaching gig.” Some of the most memorable moments from her science journalism career include swimming with beluga whales at the edge of the Arctic in Manitoba, and travelling to South Korea to meet the scientist who invented glow-in-the-dark dogs.
Tong used to share an office with veteran journalist and author Jay Ingram—“the human Google,” as she calls him—and she was thrilled to learn from the seasoned broadcaster: “You can ask him anything and he can throw the answer right back.” This season is Tong’s first without Ingram, and she jokes that she’s the first of his many female co-hosts to outlast him. Now going into her fifth year at the show, Tong is hardly a neophyte and she is game to tackle any challenge.
As for future plans, Tong says she would love to cover more forensics on the show and—as evidenced by her role as ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund—has a particular interest in the illegal animal trade. Tong learned to dive in the Red Sea in 2001, and Papua New Guinea is the next deep-sea destination on her list. Beyond that, her feet are firmly planted in her current endeavour. “I have my dream job,” she says. “I get to speak with great minds and have all of these adventures. With this job, you get to see stuff that other people never get to see.”