Here’s your clue …

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Ilene Morgan landed a spot on “Jeopardy!” Photo by B.A. Rupert

In the category “Third Time’s a Charm,” the answer is:
This Missouri University of Science and Technology faculty member tried twice to land a spot on the game show “Jeopardy!” before finally succeeding in 2012.

The question: Who is Dr. Ilene Morgan?

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Ilene Morgan with “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek. Photo submitted.

Morgan, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics at Missouri S&T, is well-known around campus and in the Rolla community for her expertise at trivia. Over the years, she’s tried to land a spot on the ultimate trivia game show, “Jeopardy!” Members of the Missouri S&T community gathered for a watch party for her “Jeopardy!” debut on March 5. She got second place.

Morgan’s pursuit of an appearance on the program has been anything but trivial. Her quest began online, where she played the official version of the game all would-be contestants must complete. In 2007 and again in 2009, her score was high enough on the 50-question quiz to qualify for a tryout.

That in itself is no small feat. According to Morgan, each year about 100,000 people take the online test and 2,000 to 3,000 are selected for an in-person audition. Of those, 300 to 400 will be selected annually as contestants on the show, which is now in its 29th season.

During each tryout — the first was in Chicago, the next in Kansas City, Mo. — Morgan took another 50-question trivia quiz, then played a simulated game and took part in a mock interview, similar to the question-and-answer session host Alex Trebek holds with contestants on the air.

“I decided that, win or lose, the experience was going to be bucket-list awesome,” says Ilene Morgan.

“They wanted to see how well you follow directions,” she says. They’re also looking at how would-be contestants appear on stage, Morgan adds.
“They really want people to speak up, be energetic and keep the game moving along.”

She wasn’t selected for the show. Under “Jeopardy!” rules, she was not allowed to take the online test for 18 months. But undeterred, once she was again eligible, Morgan tried again, performed well on the test and was called to a third tryout. She returned to Chicago to audition last May. In early October, “I got the message on my cell phone: ‘Hello, this is Robert from ‘Jeopardy!’ Why don’t you give me a call?'” Morgan says.

That was on a Thursday, and the caller’s message indicated that he wouldn’t be available until Monday. “So I had all weekend to think about it and realize that it could be happening,” she says.

She traveled to Culver City, Calif., to compete on Oct. 29 and 30. Producers record five games on each day, one right after the other.

Once she learned that she would be a contestant, “My first reaction was disbelief. But then it sank in and I was excited about it.”

But she didn’t cram for her appearance.

“Some people go on a study binge” to prepare for the show, Morgan says. “I did some studying. I made some lists. But I didn’t go crazy with it.”

Once in Culver City, Morgan and her fellow contestants — 12 other men and women, including a three-time returning champion — were shuttled to the studios on Monday morning, Oct. 29. They spent the morning prepping for their appearance, with each contestant playing two mock games to make sure contestants were at ease and able to use the buzzers.

“They did a remarkably good job of taking normal people and making us camera-ready,” Morgan says.

Contestants also prepared anecdotes that could be shared during the actual games and recorded their “hometown howdies,” promotional clips for the show to run on local stations.

After all the preparation, contestants wait until they are called on to the stage.

“You don’t know (whether you’re playing in a particular contest) until 10 minutes before the game,” Morgan says.

While she won’t divulge how she fared as a contestant or whether she won any games, Morgan says that she achieved her goal of having a good time.

“I was not thinking about the audience, or the camera, or the money,” Morgan says. “I was just playing trivia, and I was having fun.

“Before I went in, I decided that, win or lose, the experience was going to be bucket-list awesome,” she says. “And it was.”

But there were some nerve-wracking moments.

“There were runs where I did really well on the buzzer,” she says, “and then there were runs when I was frustrated because I knew the answer but someone beat me to the buzzer. One of those was on a math question.”

A frequent participant in local trivia contests, often on teams with other Missouri S&T faculty, Morgan enjoys trivia for the fun of it. And she’s known on campus for her expertise at trivia.

“I have a brain like flypaper,” she says. “Random things will kind of stick to it.”

But success on “Jeopardy!,” like trivia games, is “more about being knowledgeable” about a variety of things than it is about intelligence, Morgan says.

“It’s not that trivia is useful, but there’s a sense that everybody can watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and, when you get a question that everybody misses, you can say to yourself, ‘Ha! I could be on ‘Jeopardy!'”

This. Is. Jeopardy!

A: The 1997 graduate who co-founded S&T’s Academic Competition Organization with Ilene Morgan while still a student.
Q: Who is Mark Rooney?
A: This, the oldest building on campus, is home to Morgan’s office.
Q: What is the Rolla Building?
A: In addition to her role as associate professor of mathematics and statistics, Morgan holds this other role in her department.
Q: What is director of undergraduate studies?
A: One of the upper-level courses Morgan teaches at S&T is Math 307, also known as this.
Q: What is Combinatorics and Graph Theory?

By Andrew Careaga

Comments

  1. Great story! What a great experience.

  2. Ashok Midha says

    Way to go, Professor Morgan!! Congratulations, and all the best!
    Ashok Midha

  3. Cool, My grandparents said they saw a Missouri S&T professor on there and now i know which one!!!

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