CS @ ILLINOIS Graduate Student on Jeopardy! Winning Streak
On most days, CS @ ILLINOIS graduate student Pranjal Vachaspati is working on new computational methods to reconstruct the evolutionary history of various organisms. In late April, though, he took a leave from his research in Professor Tandy Warnow’s group, to compete on the game show Jeopardy!.
As of July 26, 2016, Vachaspati has tallied six consecutive wins and accumulated more than $137,000—his episodes only began to air on July 19. In the most recent episode, he eked out a victory over his closest opponent by only $300, which was the closest margin of victory yet.
He has deftly handled a range of topics that included questions like: Ritalin can help with this condition, which comes from the Greek word ‘above’ and the Latin word ‘doing.’ (Answer: hyperactivity); and he has chit-chatted with host Alex Trebek about his vacation to Iceland during the winter and his beer-making days as an MIT student.
I thought because I’d done so much studying, I’d win a game or two,” Vachaspati said modestly. “But I definitely didn’t think I’d win six games.”
Vachaspati decided to try out for the fast-paced game show after one of his friends competed last year. He did well enough on the online Jeopardy! test to be invited for an audition at Sony Studios near Los Angeles, CA, but had to defer because it conflicted with a genomics conference he was attending. Three months later, he was invited for another audition and nailed it.
“They must have really liked me because the day after the audition they called me and said they really wanted me on the show,” Vachaspati said, noting that the audition process included taking a challenging written test and participating in mock games so the producers can judge each person’s stage presence and personality. “Usually, contestants spend up to 18 months in the [contestant] pool.”
Vachaspati returned to Illinois at the end of March and focused all his energy on finishing a journal paper, then spent a month studying for the show by reviewing past episode questions on line and reading books written by previous contestants.
His advisor Warnow gave him some wise advice: "That's great, Pranjal,” she said. “But don't drop out of grad school—Jeopardy isn't a great career choice."
By the end of April, he was on set ready to compete. He spent the first day as an alternate, sitting in the audience watching others compete. “When I was picked to be on the show the second day I had seen what it was like, which helped make me less nervous,” he said.
Although competing may look glamorous on television, it’s actually kind of grind because the show’s producers tape five episodes each day. Despite the grueling schedule, Vachasapti really enjoyed the entire experience.
“It’s just a fun game,” he said. “It’s also fun to go on the Internet and see people talking smack about you. There’s this one person on the Jeopardy Facebook page who says mean things about all the contestants. She calls me swivel neck because apparently I look over at the other contestants when they’re answering questions.”
To see if Vachaspati’s winning streak continues, tune in to Jeopardy! at 4:30 today central time on NBC. In the meantime, Vachaspati is back at work in Warnow’s lab helping develop ASTRID, a coalescent-based method for estimating species trees from multiple gene trees. He also works on FastRFS, a new very fast supertree method.
ARTICLE UPDATE: Vachaspati's winning streak ended at 6 games with his second-place finish on the July 27 episode. He won a total of $137,088 and may be eligible to compete against other top winners in the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions.
Other recent U of I-related Jeopardy contestants include: Sean Anderson, College of Law lecturer who appeared on four episodes in 2015 and won $72,600; and alumna Ana Peso (AB ’05, history; MS ’07, library and information science; EDM ’10, educational psychology) who appeared in one episode in 2012.