NRL Scientist Tackles JEOPARDY! Quiz Show

NRLNRL post-doc, Keith Whitener, with JEOPARDY! host, Alex Trebek. Keith was a seven-time champ on the television quiz show that tests a person's knowledge in a wide range of subject areas.
(Photo: JEOPARDY!)

CLUE: Keith Whitener

QUESTION: Which NRL scientist is a 7-time JEOPARDY! champ?

By day, Keith Whitener is a researcher working in NRL's Chemistry Division. But for seven nights this fall, Keith was a champion on the television quiz show, JEOPARDY!. He ended up winning seven games for a grand total of $147,597.00, ranking him the 14th all-time regular season money winner. Here, Keith provides the inside scoop on how he went from the lab bench to the JEOPARDY! stage.

What led you to try out to be a JEOPARDY! contestant?

I blame it all on my wife. When I first got my job at NRL, my wife and I didn't yet have a place to live, so we stayed with her parents. Every night after work, we'd watch JEOPARDY! with her mother. They kept commenting that I was good and that I should try out, and eventually my wife said to me, All I want for Christmas is for you to try out for JEOPARDY!. I knew she wanted a new bookbag for Christmas, so I got her one and put the email confirmation of the JEOPARDY! online registration inside.

What was involved in becoming a contestant?

In January, I signed up to take an online test, which consisted of about 30 questions that have to be answered in 15 seconds or less. If you do well enough on this test, you are entered into a random pool from which the show draws names for further auditions. In April, I got an email for an audition in Philadelphia. This time, prospective contestants took a written test (50 questions, 15 seconds each), came prepared with five personal stories, and took part in a mock JEOPARDY! round with the buzzers. The casting directors interviewed us Trebek-style to learn about our stories and to get a feel for our personalities. Finally, in June, I got a call asking me to come out for a show taping in August.

How did you prepare for the show?

I play Sporcle quizzes online a lot as sort of a time-killer. I also do crossword puzzles pretty frequently. For specific preparation, I tried to focus on my weakest areas: sports history, Broadway musicals, etc. I really just tried to relax. I figured JEOPARDY! isn't something you can just cram for, and it probably would've done more harm than good if I had tried to memorize a whole bunch of facts that didn't interest me.

Had you ever done any kind of knowledge game competitions at the high school or college level?

In high school, I was on the High-Q team (sort of like a quiz bowl competition), and we won the state championship two years in a row if I remember correctly. In graduate school at Yale, there was a bar called Anna Liffey's that held a trivia night; the questions were surprisingly hard, and I never did very well. In fact, one of my fellow JEOPARDY! contestants had also gone to Yale, and she had the same experience at that bar.

Dr.Dr. Keith Whitener, a postdoctoral researcher, works in NRL's Surface Chemistry Branch.
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Jamie Hartman)

For you what was the easiest category and what was the hardest?

Science was the easiest category. As scientists, we often take for granted the very basic level of knowledge probed in JEOPARDY! science clues. Most JEOPARDY! contestants don't have a background in science, so the science category is a good way to score a lot of points quickly. The hardest categories were the ones that dealt with topics from 1960 to 1980. I'm too young to remember the events from this period directly, but I'm too old for this period to have been taught in history class. Whatever knowledge I have is simply by virtue of having picked it up randomly along the way.

How tricky is it to ring in on the JEOPARDY! buzzer?

It's tough to get the timing down at first. Once Trebek finishes reading the clue, someone at the judges' table hits a button that lights up the outside of the game board and activates the buzzers. If you try to buzz in before that, there's a lockout period of somewhere around a quarter of a second. I had only a short amount of time to practice with the buzzers, so it took until midway through the second game to really hit my stride with the timing. I had kind of a Zen moment with the buzzer, and I was able to ring in pretty flawlessly after that.

Were there any surprises for you when you actually got to the time for taping the program?

I was surprised by how quickly it all went. Trebek and the entire cast and crew are really amazing at what they do, and the taping hums along pretty seamlessly for the most part. If you're in the audience, it's pretty difficult to tell much of a difference from watching it on TV.

What's next in your JEOPARDY! career?

Winning the $147,597 gives me a 2-seed in the Tournament of Champions. I'm looking forward to going back to play in the tournament in a few months, where I'll be competing for a $250,000 grand prize.

What hobbies do you enjoy when you're not at work (or prepping for JEOPARDY! contests)?

My wife and I love to travel and do outdoorsy stuff like hiking and camping. I also play a lot of music. We just got married a few weeks ago, so we had been busy planning the wedding. Now that we're married, we're starting to get out and check out Washington, DC, some more.

What kind of research do you do at NRL?

I conduct research on the chemistry of surfaces, specifically graphene (atomically thin sheets of carbon) and other carbon species. I'm doing a lot of wet chemistry lately (beakers, flasks, etc.), which is a bit of a stretch for me, since my background is more on the physics side of chemistry than the preparative side. This research could lead to chemistry on surfaces that might offer more robust or more chemically flexible sensors. I'm learning a lot, and I really enjoy a lot of the projects I'm working on.

Best wishes to Keith when he returns to JEOPARDY! for the Tournament of Champions.

We'll take 'Chemistry' for $1000 Alex.