Isaac Applebaum, left, competes in the quarterfinals of the Jeopardy College Championship. (Image credit: ABC/Casey Durkin)

In the first quarterfinals matchup of the two-week Jeopardy College Championship, Stanford junior Isaac Applebaum pulled off a come-from-behind win to defeat Gus Guszkowski of Dartmouth and Catherine Zhang of Cornell. (His winning move, backed up with a modest wager in Final Jeopardy: correctly identifying Charles Torrey as the abolitionist thought to have given the Underground Railroad its name.) He talked about his experience on the show, his approach as a competitor and his work in STEM mentorship ahead of his semifinal, which airs Thursday at 8/7c on ABC.


Do you have life experience or special skills that set you up for an appearance on the show?

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Stanford junior Isaac Applebaum trailed Dartmouth senior Gus Guszkowski heading into the Final Jeopardy round of quarterfinals.

Not really. I’ve just watched Jeopardy! since I was a little kid and this is something I always wanted to do. There was an opportunity to take the online test to be a part of the college tournament. I did that and did well enough to get an audition. I didn’t hear from them for a long time. But then, out of the blue, I got a call saying you’re going to be on Jeopardy! And everything pretty much happened from there.

My parents, who met at Stanford, read to me a lot from a young age and really inspired me to be curious. I love all kinds of different things. I played a lot of sports growing up. I’m a biology major. I’m pre-med. I do machine learning research in the Waymouth and Rotskoff labs in the Department of Chemistry. So I have a lot of science interests but secretly I’m a humanities person. I love literature and languages and history. And I read all the time. So between those things, I do feel like I know all kinds of random things that somehow fit together, and that made Jeopardy! something that I was able to do.


Can you describe your approach on stage?

Jeopardy! is a game. It’s a competition. You have to be able to be comfortable in a zero-sum situation without adopting a zero-sum mentality. I think something that helped me is that at Stanford, there’s this idea that it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to be wrong. You just have to bounce back from it.


Did you do any special preparation?

Beyond watching the show, there’s an online archive of previous episodes and questions. I reviewed some of those. And then if there was something I didn’t know, I would go and look it up and try to learn more about that topic. There’s also a little bit of hand-eye coordination, with the buzzing in. You can’t really practice for that, but I think, as a musician, my hand-eye coordination is pretty good. I’m a jazz pianist, so I did practice a little extra leading up to the filming.


What’s something you experienced during the filming that people might not see on TV?

Well, everyone looks the same height on screen, but we’re obviously not. They have an adjustable block behind the podium that you’re standing on and it’s a lift. It moves you up and down until everyone is at the same level.

In the bigger picture, I think everything looks perfect when you see it on TV because there are dozens of people who put a lot of effort into making it look perfect. But real life isn’t perfect. Sometimes the camera isn’t in the right place or there’s a technical difficulty.

During the filming of one episode, there was a technical-difficulties moment and the host, Mayim Bialik, came out and did an impromptu Q&A with us. We got to hear all about her life as a scientist, as an actor. It was really cool to connect with the people who make the show happen. Viewers just see it as the perfect final product, but really, this was people doing something really amazing together.

It was such an incredible experience, and I’m excited to share it with everyone because it’s been a secret that the other contestants and I have had to keep to ourselves for so long.


What do you plan to do with your winnings?

I’ll save most of my winnings to help pay for medical school (I want to be an oncologist), and I’m planning to donate some of the money to food banks. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 9 Americans didn’t have enough food to eat, and that number has now risen to roughly 1 in 4. Many food banks can provide several meals for each dollar received in donations, so I’ll hopefully be able to have a meaningful impact on the communities I’m a part of.


Anything else you want to call out?

One thing that I want to call attention to is a program that I’ve been a part of called Stanford STEMentors. It was started in 2020 by Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, Dory DeWeese and others in Stanford’s chemistry department to provide mentorship and tutoring to first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority students in intro chemistry courses, which are a key gateway into STEM majors. I started out with them the first year as a mentor and now I help to run the program, and we’ve served well over a hundred students through small group and individualized mentorship. In addition to dealing with wellness, belonging and mental health, which have been particularly important during the pandemic, we also review course content, connect mentees with academic resources like Center for Teaching and Learning tutoring and help them get involved with clubs and research opportunities. It’s been a huge success, and I want more students to know that it’s available to them. Introductory science courses can be tough, especially for students with less prior experience, and programs like STEMentors can help people get through the initial difficulty to find success in a STEM field.