UC Davis doctoral student takes on ‘Jeopardy!’ in episode airing tonight

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and Hannah Safford posed for a photo when she taped her episode in March. The episode will air July 9, 2019.
Jeopardy host Alex Trebek and Hannah Safford posed for a photo when she taped her episode in March. The episode will air July 9, 2019. Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Hannah Safford says you don’t have to be a genius to be on “Jeopardy!” Though to the average person, Safford might seem a bit like one.

The 28-year-old is getting her doctorate in environmental engineering while working part-time as a researcher with the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment and the Economy. She also has two master’s degrees in engineering and public policy from Princeton University.

She decided to take the 50-question “Jeopardy!” online eligibility test “kind of for the hell of it” for the first time in 2015, though she was not called to film the show after her in-person audition.

“I’m the kind of person that likes to throw their name in the hat for things,” she said. “. . . There’s not very many reality shows or game shows that I would sacrifice my dignity to be on, and ‘Jeopardy!’ is one of them.”

It turns out the second time was the charm, as she tried again last year and became one of only 400 people who made it onto the show out of the approximately 80,000 that try every year. Her episode was taped in March but will air Tuesday at 7 p.m. PST.

As one might expect, Safford excels at the science categories, but she also has knack for the wordplay and pop culture categories. She enjoys doing crossword puzzles and listening to podcasts about politics and pop culture – some of her favorites are “FiveThirtyEight” and NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” and “Longform.”

She’s even dabbled in competitive Scrabble.

While spending a summer in Kenya, Safford wound up playing against the son of a former Kenyan Scrabble champion, and she played a few Scrabble tournaments in Washington, D.C., when she was a fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Safford is entering her third year of research into developing faster methods of detecting harmful bacteria and viruses in water. These methods could allow wastewater to be treated and quickly reused in the drinking water system. She is also passionate about writing and science communication to engage the public.

Safford said her “Jeopardy!” strategy was just to “stay calm,” focus on her strong categories and not get stage fright, since she knew that she knew enough of the questions.

“There’s a lot of questions that all three contestants know the answer to,” she said, and the important part is to not buzz in too early or too late. She taped her episode before James Holzhauer’s episodes aired, but Holzhauer’s strategy — he won $2.5 million in a 32-game streak — works only if you have enough confidence in all of the categories to go right to the “big money clues,” she said.

Though some of her friends and family were allowed to attend the taping, Safford has had to keep the results a secret since her episode was filmed in March.

“They don’t send you the check until after it airs,” she said.

Safford’s episode will air Tuesday, July 9, at 7 p.m. PST on ABC (KXTV) in the Sacramento area.

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Jaimie Ding, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee with an interest in politics and international relations. She grew up in Vancouver, Washington.