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Drew University Professor Set to Appear on Jeopardy!

Brianne Barker takes us behind the scenes of the surreal experience

July 2022 – Drew University associate professor and chair of biology Brianne Barker has fulfilled a lifelong dream of competing on Jeopardy! Her episode will air this Wednesday, July 27.

Barker started taking the annual qualifying online test in 2012 and first got an invite to audition in 2018. After not hearing back, she kept taking—and passing—the once-a-year test and was contacted again in August 2021. Two Zoom auditions and a lot of waiting later, she got a text from a Jeopardy! producer in April 2022 officially booking her.

“I wasn’t able to tell anyone about being selected to be on the show until the publicity photos came out. Keeping such a fun secret was excruciating,” said Barker.

She spent the next month doing as much prep as she could, juggling end-of-semester grading, speaking at Commencement, attending conferences, co-hosting the weekly This Week in Virology podcast, answering media questions about all things COVID-19, and preparing for the Drew Summer Science Institute (DSSI).

“I read up on a few topics that commonly show up but are my weaknesses, like Greek mythology and famous painters, listened to an audiobook on world history while I did things around the house, and read Secrets of the Buzzer.”

Barker filmed in on May 17, when all of this week’s episodes were taped.

So…how was it!?

Every part was better and more fun than I could have imagined and I'll remember it forever.

“The experience was absolutely amazing,” said Barker. “It was so much fun and even better than I had imagined it would be. I’m a very competitive person, so I spent some time beforehand thinking about how it was all about having a fun adventure and not about winning because I didn’t want to leave my dream experience disappointed. In the end, it didn’t matter because ‘fun adventure’ is an understatement for how much I enjoyed it.”

The week’s contestants recorded “Hometown Howdy’s,” which will air in each contestants’ respective hometowns as promos for their episodes, played a few practice games to get used to the buzzer system, and drew names to decide which contestants would participate in which day’s games.

The nearby Wheel of Fortune studio served as a COVID-19-friendly makeshift green room where contestants spent time before taping. Due to health and safety protocols, the contestants also filled in as a shrunken-down studio audience.

Barker had her name drawn for the Wednesday game, and it was go time.

“There were so many moments throughout the day that were amazing and a bit surreal.” said Barker. “Seeing the podiums and buzzer and board in person, seeing all of the little details about how the show is made, what happens during commercial breaks, seeing how they deal with a contestant who is short like me among many others. I couldn’t believe I was really there and really meeting Ken Jennings.”

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Barker with Ken Jennings

And the game itself?

“It was a total blur. I was so nervous and don’t remember all of the things that happened. It felt like the whole thing took five minutes. It will be fun to watch again and see what happened.”

While she can’t give away any secrets, she offered one teaser.

“There was one question that I will always remember in an I-can’t-believe-I-got-a-question-about-x kind of way, but I can’t really say more than that until after the episode airs.”

In all, living out something she’d dreamed about since she was a kid surpassed all expectations.

“Every part was better and more fun than I could have imagined and I’ll remember it forever,” said Barker.

“However, the best part is definitely the people that I met. I am in touch with all of the other contestants who recorded that day and I can tell that I have made some friends for life. Since the 12 of us were sequestered together without phones for the day, we became very close and all cheered for each other. I am so lucky to have had this experience and it definitely shows me to go for things that I really want because they can be so much fun!”

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