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Vol. LXVI, No. 6
March 14, 2014

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NEIís Perez-Gonzalez Meets Cool Host, Cruel Buzzer on Jeopardy!

Dr. Cesar Perez-Gonzalez (r) with Alex Trebek on the set of Jeopardy!

Dr. Cesar Perez-Gonzalez (r) with Alex Trebek on the set of Jeopardy!

Photo: Jeopardy! Productions

Dr. Cesar Perez-Gonzalez of NEI recently scratched a major item off his bucket list by appearing on the TV game show Jeopardy!

He proved himself an able competitor, ultimately earning third place and a $1,000 cash prize. The show aired Jan. 28 on ABC.

Even though he didn’t come out on top, Perez-Gonzalez accomplished his main goal. “I really wanted to get on the show before Trebek retires,” he said. The iconic TV personality is 73 and has hosted the show for 30 years.

Perez-Gonzalez works in NEI’s Office of the Scientific Director, where he manages a variety of training programs and acts as a mentor to NEI’s graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other trainees. He grew up watching Jeopardy! every night with his mother. The show requires three players to demonstrate their knowledge and quick wits by responding to obscure trivia in the form of a question. (Example: “This white coating…is used to prepare a painter’s canvas.” Correct response: “What is gesso?”)

Just getting onto the show is extremely competitive. For most people, the process begins with an online test, for which millions have registered. Hopefuls can take the test repeatedly, but have to wait a year between tries. Perez-Gonzalez passed the online test in January 2012, survived in-person try-outs in Cleveland in May 2012, and got a call to compete on the show in October 2013—just weeks before his eligibility was set to expire.

Between the call and the trip to L.A., he spent most of his free time preparing and quizzing himself. He holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and felt strong in medical and life sciences. He read up on other areas and studied “You Gotta Know…” fact sheets available from the National Academic Quiz Tournaments web site. But none of that could prepare him for the Jeopardy! buzzer, which contestants press when they think they know the correct response.

A person off-screen controls the buzzer system, locking it while Trebek is talking and unlocking it when Trebek is finished. “If you buzz in too early, it will lock you out for about a quarter of a second,” Perez-Gonzalez explained. “It’s a cruel, cruel device.”

Ultimately, he faced “very tough opponents who were a lot faster on the buzzer,” he said. Indeed, one of his competitors, Arthur Chu, is still dominating the show as of this writing. Chu has made headlines for his aggressive playing style. While most players tend to progressively move from the easiest, low-reward Jeopardy! questions to the hardest, high-reward questions, Chu’s selections seem almost random—it’s a risky strategy that earns him larger prizes and seems to throw off his opponents. Perez-Gonzalez said it’s all just part of the game.

Ever the mentor, he’s now offering survival tips to Dr. James Herman, a postdoctoral fellow at NEI who will compete on the show sometime in April. Jeopardy! fans should also watch for an “Eye on Health” trivia category and a shout-out to NEI in May, which is Healthy Vision Month.

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