Isaac Applebaum: A Jeopardy! Experience

1.  Please describe your decision to attend Stanford University and what makes Stanford special to you.

When I was deciding between different colleges, I prioritized choosing a school with a collaborative culture. Stanford is special because it fosters a community of people who understand that building something meaningful requires more than anyone can contribute on their own. At its best, Stanford is a place where smart people work together to achieve success, celebrate each team member’s contributions and perspectives, and support each other through failure. My mentors in the Chemistry Department, including Prof. Robert Waymouth, Prof. Grant Rotskoff, Dr. Trevor Del Castillo, and Dr. Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, have taught me that reaching this ideal is a choice that all of us make with our everyday actions, and that we have more power than we think to shape our communities.

2.  Can you share one of your favorite Jeopardy! memories?

Due to technical difficulties during the filming of one episode, the host (Mayim Bialik) came out and did an impromptu Q&A with us. We got to hear all about her life as a scientist and as an actor. It was really cool to connect with the people who make the show happen. Viewers just see the perfect final product on TV, but really, this was people doing something amazing together. I’m still in touch with the other contestants, and I’m grateful to be a part of the community we created while filming the show.

3.  What advice do you have for others who hope to become Jeopardy! contestants?

The questions on the show could be about anything, so it helps to have a diverse knowledge base. For example, I’m a pre-med student and Biology major, but I love all kinds of different things. I played a lot of sports growing up. I do research in the Waymouth and Rotskoff labs in the Department of Chemistry, where I use machine learning to design polymers for gene delivery. At the same time, I’m secretly a humanities person. I love literature, languages, and history. And I read all the time. Nurturing these interests made Jeopardy! something that I was able to do.

It's also important to remember that everyone who’s ever competed on Jeopardy! has gotten questions wrong. Many contestants, including me, have won their games despite falling behind. I think that doing scientific research at Stanford has helped instill the right kind of mindset for dealing with these situations. It’s OK to be wrong. You just have to bounce back from it and learn from your mistakes to keep improving.

4.  Can you share your experience with Stanford STEMentors and the impact this program has had on you?

One highlight of my experience at Stanford has been serving as a mentor for a program called STEMentors, which has deepened my love of teaching and my commitment to educational equity. STEMentors was started in 2020 by Dr. Jennifer Schwartz Poehlmann, Dory DeWeese and others in Stanford’s Chemistry Department. The program provides mentorship and tutoring to first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented-minority students in the general chemistry courses CHEM 31A and CHEM 31B. Foundational classes like these are a key gateway into STEM majors, but discouraging experiences in general chemistry and intro organic chemistry are also a major cause of students leaving the sciences. As researchers including Stanford’s Prof. Shima Salehi and Prof. Donald Barr have shown, students from underrepresented groups are disproportionately affected. STEMentors was designed to help address this issue by supporting students through the academic and social challenges of general chemistry.

I started with STEMentors as a mentor during its first year, and now I help to run the program. Since 2020, we’ve served well over a hundred students through small group and individualized mentorship. In addition to dealing with wellness, belonging, and mental health, which have been particularly important during the pandemic, we also review course content and study skills, connect mentees with academic resources, and help them get involved with clubs and research opportunities. It’s been a huge success, increasing students’ utilization of office hours, improving students’ sense of well-being, and building students’ confidence in their ability to succeed in chemistry. Introductory science courses can be tough, especially for students with less prior experience, and programs like STEMentors can help people get through the initial difficulty to find success in a STEM field.

6.  Feel free to share any other information.

I’ve deeply enjoyed being a part of the Chemistry community at Stanford, including through classes, research, and my work with STEMentors! My mentors in the Chemistry Department have helped me grow in ways that contributed to my success on Jeopardy! and will continue to serve me well as I work towards becoming an oncologist and medical researcher. I will make sure to support others throughout my career like they’ve supported me.


Image Credit: Jeopardy!