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Ph.D. Student to Appear on ‘Jeopardy!’ This Week

By Cody Kitaura/Dateline on July 8, 2019 in University

As a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering and a part-time researcher with the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy, Hannah Safford “knows a little bit about a lot of things.”

That knowledge — and a love of crossword puzzles — helped her as a contestant on Jeopardy!, which was filmed in March and will air Tuesday (July 9). 

“I think having exposure to different worlds helps,” Safford said.

More than 80,000 hopefuls apply to be on Jeopardy! each year, but only about 400 make the cut. Safford first took the online eligibility test in 2015, but wasn’t called to appear. She took the test again last year and participated in an in-person audition in San Francisco before being asked in February to appear on the show.

Safford said she has never been a diehard fan of the television show.

“I thought everybody who went on Jeopardy! was like me,” she said of her casual viewing habits.

But after taping her appearance on the show, she joined a Facebook group for Jeopardy! alumni, where she found a vibrant community of trivia buffs who travel from one quiz bowl competition to another or whose first question upon landing in a new city is to ask for recommendations for bars that host trivia nights.

“I didn’t realize there was this whole trivia subculture,” she said.

Now that she can list “Jeopardy! contestant” among her achievements, she said her friends have been asking her to come carry their bar trivia teams. But she insists it doesn’t take a genius to compete on Jeopardy!, and is modest about her own abilities.

“Being on Jeopardy! isn’t nearly as high pressure as going to bar trivia after being on Jeopardy!” she said.

She went into her taping unaware that competitor James Holzhauer’s 32-game, $2.5-million winning streak would start to air just a couple of weeks later. But Safford pointed out that Holzhauer’s lauded strategy of betting big and targeting high-value questions “only works if you know all the answers.”

Science questions were definitely her strong suit while “art was a disaster,” she said with a laugh.

That makes sense considering her background: Safford is about to begin her third year of research into faster methods of water-quality monitoring, which could make it easier to safely reuse treated wastewater by spotting potentially hazardous microbes faster. Safford also spent two years as a fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in between pursuing a pair of master’s degrees in engineering and public policy at Princeton University.

Safford said she enjoyed the taping process, during which she posed for a photo with Alex Trebek as enough family members to fill two rows looked on. Producers sent her a copy of that photo, as well as a separate shot featuring her alone. Safford said producers for the show were upset to learn contestants had been using their photos with Trebek as professional headshots, cropping the host out.

Safford said she understands — after all, it’s not every day the average person who appears on Jeopardy! gets glammed up for TV by professionals.

“We’re all really nerdy,” she said. “We’re not very good with makeup.”

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About the author(s)

Cody Kitaura/Dateline Cody Kitaura is a content provider and strategist with Strategic Communications at UC Davis. He can be reached at 530-752-1932 or kitaura@ucdavis.edu.

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