Phil Torres and His Team of Scientists Bring Al Jazeera America to NoHo
There are so many interesting facets to our booming one-mile North Hollywood neighborhood, but the most interesting are definitely, hands down, the people who work, live and play in the NoHo Arts District. So when we caught Al Jazeera America’s show Techknow, we saw that they filmed right here in NoHo at the Republic of Pie. What was even more impressive was host Phil Torres and his team of other easy-to-relate-to scientists helping us understand the bridge between science and technology. But TechKnow is staged and produced in a way everyone can understand and, even more, enjoy. You have to see for your self on Sundays at 4:30PM Pacific time on the new Al Jazeera America network. So NoHo, we’d like you to meet Phil Torres, scientist, bug man, TechKnow TV host and all around fun guy.
So, “only tough guys catch butterflies?” What is your scientific background?
I’ve been running around outside catching butterflies and other insects since I was seven, so I like to consider job as a scientist as being a professional seven-year old. I studied entomology at Cornell University and have been able to work on scientific expeditions in some very exciting places like Mongolia and South America. Most of my recent work had me living in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and Peru for two years. My research focuses on how odd behaviors- like butterflies drinking turtle tears or spiders creating big fake spiders in their web- are shaped by evolution and how to understand that behavior in the context of conservation. When I’m not filming with TechKnow, I’m working on my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Rice University and doing scientific expeditions to various rainforests. And I’m loving every nerdy second of it.
We have to ask the yummy question: what’s the most delicious bug you’ve ever eaten? Do you think Los Angelenos will ever start eating insects like we do In n’ Out?
Freshly hatched cicadas sautéed with garlic are really quite delicious- reminiscent of mushrooms with a hint of almond; I highly recommend trying them. There are hundreds of reasons why we should be eating more insects, ranging from health to economic interests to pollution to even taste- but getting people over the “ick” factor is very tricky. I’m convinced insects as food just need a giant PR campaign, maybe instead of In ‘n Out we’ll need an Insects ‘n Out to get people talking about it and trying it.
How did you go from science guy to science news guy?
I loved doing the science but during college I found it felt very unrewarding if people I met weren’t talking about science in their lives or if my research didn’t really get communicated to them. What started as a passion for getting people to say “oh, that’s cool!” about a scientific fact turned into a realization that there are career opportunities in that field. There’s no better way to teach a lot of people about science than by using television and the internet, so I dove headfirst into it alongside my research in the field.
What were some discoveries you’ve made and outrageous things that have happened to you on your journalism /scientific adventures?
My favorite discovery I’ve made is a spider that makes a bigger, decoy version of a spider in its web, likely to confuse predators. This behavior isn’t just unique amongst spiders- there is no other animal, besides humans, that can construct a bigger version of an animal from scratch.
I’ve been held at gunpoint a couple times, bitten by an anaconda, and lost in a forest full of quicksand, all in the name of science. Every scientist has a little Indiana Jones in him/herself, so I like to think I’m taking these risks for a worthy cause.
How did you land the opportunity to host Al Jazeera’s Techknow?
I had worked with one of the producers a few years back for an episode of another show. They got in touch with me when I was remote in the field in the Peruvian Amazon and I managed to have a blurry Skype conversation from the field with Executive Producer Steve Lange. When he said it was “a show about science, by scientists” I was sold. It’s such a great environment to work in when they appreciate and support our scientific, geeky excitement.
Why did you choose to film Techknow at the Republic of Pie in the NoHo Arts District?
The producers were looking for a place that had a cool, creative environment that would bring out some great conversations- we use the coffee shop segment of the show to discuss and opine on each others stories. The combo of great coffee and really tasty pie seems to be the perfect recipe to get us chatting about science, and their Thanksgiving pot-pie is the best lunch break meal I could ask for.
Can you tell us about the Techknow’s format and why it works so darn well? (we love it and we are all age ranges and backgrounds!)
The producers had a great vision for it and we’ve been so happy to see how well it works. The show revolves around the correspondents (all young, active scientists) having conversations in the coffee shop about our science stories that we shot in the field, and doing a little show and tell and discussion as we then show the segments to the viewers. The field stories are always amazing- the team really loves finding unique science and technology innovations that have strong meaning to us as humans, from inspirational stories about robots helping paralyzed people walk again to debates about genetically modified food.
What advice would you give to encourage young folks to study science? Any advice to make young girls not afraid of bugs?
Science is simply cool. You get to do things like use lasers, fly planes, build robots, chase animals in the rainforest, discover new species, etc. The older you get, the more you realize the value in having your brain tingling and stimulated by trying to solve scientific questions, and the more your peers can realize how awesome it is to be driven in that way. When I was young I was made fun of on occasion by kids in my school for having a butterfly collection. But in the end I’m the guy who gets to ride on canoes to track jaguars and call it a job, and for all I know they’re just as mean and sitting bored in an office somewhere. Even for my scientist friends who work in labs or offices, it is amazing to be able to wake up every day and be excited to see what we can solve using science.
Many of the most amazing, talented entomologists I know are women. Bugs are fascinating, interesting, and it is absolutely worth getting over being afraid of them. My advice to make young girls not afraid is to have them see what entomologists like Susan Finkbeiner or May Barenbaum get to do and who they get to influence. Also, look at an insect and ask a question. What makes it jump when it does? Why does it eat that plant and not another? Why does it have those bright colors? The more curious you get about something the more you get over the spiny legs!
We are an arts district afterall so we have to ask. Is there a scientific way to help tone-deaf singers become Aretha Franklin? Seriously, we’re interested to know if you have anything coming up where science can help the arts! Any teasers?
Science helping the arts! That is a fascinating subject. I see science and technology as being enablers or trainers for artists- there are iPhone apps you can use to bring out your inner Aretha Franklin, and you can use the scientific method to determine the best vocal techniques or paints, to predict the catchiest songs, or to create a piece of art itself. I even know of a device that helps a graphic designer continue to create art despite becoming paralyzed by tracing his eye movements. Can science make art from scratch, or make unartistic people artistic? That’s a bit of a philosophical debate that I’ll need some coffee and pie to think about.
There is also something wonderfully creative about a great science experiment. While I am admittedly quite the terrible artist, I like to think my artsy side comes out in developing a dynamic, interwoven science project.
Make sure to follow Phil Torres on his jaunts around the world and in our world, the NoHo Arts District.
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