Medical student thrives in ‘Jeopardy!’ appearances

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Siddharth Hariharan with "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek.

A week before moving to Richmond to start medical school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Siddharth Hariharan was in Los Angeles to test his knowledge in another high-stakes environment. The first-year VCU School of Medicine student competed on three episodes of “Jeopardy!” in July. The episodes aired in mid-September.

“For the first few days after it aired I felt like a celebrity on campus,” Hariharan said. “Now that everyone has seen the episodes they all greet me much more friendlily.”

For the first few days after it aired I felt like a celebrity on campus.

The 22-year-old is no stranger to trivia, having competed in Quiz Bowl tournaments as a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia and later coaching the Quiz Bowl team at the University of Virginia, where he studied cognitive sciences.

“Learning trivia expands your mind,” Hariharan said. “When you study a lot of different subjects it enriches your life everywhere. There is always something new to learn.”

Hariharan learned he would be on the show a week before leaving the country for a month-long vacation to Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. “I tried to learn facts about the countries I was traveling in just in case they came up during the show,” he said. A week after returning to the U.S., he flew to Los Angeles.  

The only child started watching “Jeopardy!” with his parents when he was 10 years old. He would compete with his dad every night and, while he improved over the years, he says he still rarely wins when they play.

Hariharan’s father happened to be in Los Angeles on a business trip the week he was there to compete, so he joined his son for the two days of competitions. “Jeopardy!” films five games a day and Hariharan was selected to compete in the fourth game on the first day he was there.

“It was already mentally exhausting for everybody,” he said. “I saw Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday’s game of that week and competed against someone who I had just watched win.”

After winning the first game, he was rushed backstage to change into a new set of clothes and then ran back out to play again. “If I was quiet looking on Friday it was because I was really tired and had just been so relieved that I won the first one,” Hariharan said.

Rather than concerning himself with memorizing trivia, Hariharan focused on learning how to play the game strategically to gain the most advantage going into Final Jeopardy. In the weeks leading up to filming, he studied wagering theory rather than memorizing facts.

“That was a huge part of how I played,” Hariharan said. “I didn’t have a lot of time to study all of the facts that I wanted to, so I thought learning how to play the game the best I could was a good alternative.”

Hariharan also felt that his background in science gave him an edge. “There was a question on antioxidants,” he said. “Having now taken a few weeks of biochemistry, it was even more satisfying to watch myself get that one right.”

Between rounds, Hariharan chatted with Alex Trebek about sketch comedy, classical guitar and coffee.

“You give them a list of things you want to talk about and Alex just picks one,” he said. “Alex has a really dry sense of humor.”

After winning the first two games, Hariharan lost the first game on his second day of competing, but he still earned a three-day total of $30,000.

In September, the medical student hosted watch parties for all three episodes at the Learning Theater in the McGlothlin Medical Education Center.

“It was surreal to hear myself conduct the interview and play the questions,” he said, adding that the experience flew by when he was competing on the show. “It felt like it took a lot longer while I was watching it. I felt more nervous watching than I did when I was playing.”

While he enjoyed the short-lived fame, Hariharan said he is also happy for life to return to normal. And as for the $30,000?

“It’s going to help pay for medical school,” he said.


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