This feature originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Trek.
Science broadcaster Ziya Tong landed her current role as co-host of Daily Planet in 2008 after completing what was supposed to be a temporary six-week position as guest host. Her unique way of communicating science in a meaningful and straightforward manner captivated audiences of all ages from the start.
Tong was discovered by none other than Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, who cast her in the first iPod ads in the US. Tong went on to serve as host and field producer for the PBS national primetime series, Wired Science produced in conjunction with Wired Magazine, and in 2009 joined the network’s NOVA scienceNOW as a new contributor.
A strong supporter of public broadcasting, Tong participates in Media that Matters, a conference that promotes social change and media activism. While in New York, Tong worked as a senior producer for Orientation.com, a global Internet news portal for developing countries partnered with the BBC and the United Nations Development Program.
In Canada, Tong hosted the CBC’s Emmy®-nominated series ZeD, a pioneer of open source television — for which she received a Gemini Viewer’s Choice Award nomination — and worked as host, writer and director for the science series The Leading Edge. In 2003, she launched the Ethical Media Division for Cowie and Fox Creative, one of Vancouver’s leading interactive agencies, to promote green branding for non-profit and environmental groups.
Tong says her current work with Daily Planet is a dream job that’s replete with adventure and the opportunity to experience what many people can only dream of. Case in point: last year Tong and her co-host, Dan Riskin, were embedded at the jet propulsion laboratory with the team from the California Institute of Technology when it successfully landed NASA’s rover, Curiosity, on Mars.
Tong has travelled to more than 60 countries. In addition to speaking fluent English and Cantonese, she is working on her French, Mandarin and Arabic. She received her BA in psychology and sociology from UBC.
What is your most prized possession?
I don’t think it’s anything I’ve ever bought, so probably my memories.
Who was your childhood hero?
My grandfather. He was a revolutionary and a political prisoner. He worked his way up from nothing and became a leading political figure in Hong Kong.
What was the last thing you read?
Right now I’m reading: Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet worms by Richard Fortey, Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt and Tubes by Andrew Blum. Also, I love Cabinet Magazine.
What or who makes you laugh out loud?
Seeing little kids arguing
What’s the most important lesson you ever learned?
I sold encyclopaedias door-to-door in Northern BC for a while. Every day 499 doors would slam in my face and one door would open. You’ve gotta keep going ’til you get to that one door, and sincerely thank the person who opens it.
What’s your idea of the perfect day?
Drinking a whiskey with my family in a bush tent under a domed sky of stars in Africa
What would be the title of your biography?
It Rhymes with Papaya
If a genie granted you one wish, what would it be?
For psychopaths to be powerless
What item have you owned for the longest time?
My old orange knee-high boots. I wear them down and just keep re-soling them. I’m gonna wear them ’til I’m 80.
What is your latest purchase?
A trip to Tulum
Whom do you most admire (living or dead) and why?
Aside from my mum, who is my superstar, I’d say Jane Goodall. She’s tireless, powerful, inspiring and kind.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
The meaning of life? Yeah, uh, I think I’ve figured it out now.
If you could invent something, what would it be?
A First Class chair for economy flights
In which era would you most like to have lived, and why?
I’d like to live at a time in the future when we can understand what animals are saying. I’d hope the world would operate quite differently then.
What are you afraid of?
Hitting the wrong button in the middle of an automated telephone service
Name the skill or talent you would most like to have.
The ability to make an onion volcano like a Teppanyaki chef
Which three pieces of music would you take to that desert island?
“An Ending (Ascent)” by Brian Eno, Chopin’s Nocturnes and some Bessie Smith
Which famous person (living or dead) do you think (or have you been told) you most resemble?
I just called my friend to ask her. She said Keanu Reeves. We both laughed for 10 minutes. But it’s not funny – especially not Sad Keanu.
What is your pet peeve?
People who text when you’re talking to them
What are some of your UBC highlights?
I single-handedly reduced the price of an extra slice of cheese at UBC food services. When I was there, an extra slice of cheese on a sandwich cost 25 cents. Then one day, out of the blue, they bumped it up to a dollar. As a student, and as someone who loves cheese on my tuna melts (otherwise, what is melting?) I was outraged. So I campaigned UBC food services until they knocked the price back down. I can only hope that my legacy prevailed, and I think my grandfather would have been proud.