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From the lecture hall to the podium: Sam Papuha makes her ‘Jeopardy!’ debut

Graduate student Sam Papuha recently achieved her lifelong dream of competing on the "Jeopardy!" stage.

On November 25, Edmontonians tuned into Jeopardy! to watch Sam Papuha test her trivia knowledge and realize her lifelong dream of being a contestant on the show.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” said Papuha, reflecting on her moment behind the Jeopardy! podium. “To actually see yourself up there, taking something really huge off your bucket list, was incredibly surreal.” 

Papuha is a PhD student in political sciences at the U of A, and her lasting love of both trivia and game shows set her on the pathway to the Jeopardy! stage. Her passion for knowledge dates back to when she was a kid reading Dr. Seuss trivia and fun fact books, begging her parents to quiz her. 

Papuha expressed the sense of pride and excitement that she feels about knowing fun facts and “little niche tidbits about things.” More recently, Papuha has played on a beer league trivia team with members of her department.

At the end of September, Papuha got the exciting news that she had qualified to compete on Jeopardy!. She flew out to Los Angeles over the Thanksgiving weekend, using her one week of teaching assistant (TA) vacation time to film.

A major highlight of Papuha’s experience was spending time with her fellow contestants in the studio holding room, which she likened to a “summer camp for trivia nerds.” 

“You’re basically sitting there and playing along to the episodes that they’re filming. You’re hanging out [and] swapping stories, and it’s just a really nice afternoon with some very cool people who also have the same niche interest as you do.”

Supplied: Sam Papuha ready for remote learning on the first day of grade 18 (PhD Year 2).
Supplied: Sam Papuha “Ready for remote learning on the first
day of grade 18 (PhD Year 2)” 

While she didn’t encounter clues directly related to content from her studies, Papuha said that the quick thinking needed in school translated well to the Jeopardy! stage.

“Usually you [are] put on the fly so much when you’re doing any kind of graduate degree … from your supervisor wanting to know things, or you having to pull things out in the middle of oral exams.” 

Papuha credited her work as a TA especially for developing her instant recall of specific information. She was prepared for the fast-paced Jeopardy! environment from having students expecting answers to their questions immediately.

“It’s definitely not the grad school motivation that they’ll tell you about … but I think that playing on a TV trivia game show is also a pretty good motivation for going to do a PhD!”

During her game, Papuha faced the added challenge of playing against an exceptionally formidable opponent. Cris Pannullo was already a 13-game-champion when Papuha’s episode was filmed, and he has now made it into the top 10 categories for both number of games and amount of money won on the show. 

“They marched [Pannullo] in and had him sit down in front of us and I thought, ‘Okay … this is going to be a little bit more challenging than maybe I originally thought when I got here.’”

Papuha did get correct responses on a number of clues, however, and she claimed the second place prize of $2,000. 

Though it is uncertain whether the newly-created Jeopardy! Second Chance tournament will continue, Papuha was enthusiastic about the possibility of returning to the show.

“If the opportunity ever arose, 100 per cent I would love to come back. I thought it was a really fun experience.”

As for her future game show appearances beyond Jeopardy!, Papuha joked that Wheel of Fortune and Family Feud might be in the cards. 

 “I keep saying that, just give me like two years and I’ll master Wheel of Fortune. We’ll see if that actually goes through.”

When it comes to the response Papuha received from viewers, the university community and her friends from undergrad were especially a big part in celebrating Papuha’s achievements, she said. 

“It was just really wholesome to have the U of A community come full circle like that,” Papuha said.

“The same people that are supporting you as you’re having a good cry in the Tim’s line in CAB … are the same ones who are now supporting you as you’re living a lifelong dream a handful of years later — which is really cool.”

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