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Westminster chemistry professor to appear on ‘Jeopardy!’ on Thursday

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Posted on Tuesday, January 18, 2022

After a few failed attempts, close calls and life interruptions, Westminster College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Patrick Lackey has finally made it to the “Jeopardy!” podium.

Lackey, who appears on the popular game show this week on Thursday, Jan. 20, has been attempting a shot at the “Jeopardy!” stage for several years.

“I really started thinking about trying to be on ‘Jeopardy!’ when I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina,” said Lackey, adding that he and a group of friends began taking the game show’s online test, an entry-level screening for those with dreams of competing on the show. “It was only offered a few days a year at a specific time in the evening. If you missed the test nights, you had to wait a full year for your next chance.”

In 2013, after a couple of attempts at the online test, Lackey was invited to an in-person interview in Nashville, where potential contestants took a second on-paper test, interviewed with coordinators and competed in mock “Jeopardy!” games.

“At the end of it, we were told that we might get a call at any point in the next 18 months to be on ‘Jeopardy!,’” said Lackey. “I did not receive a call.”

After that experience, taking the online “Jeopardy!” tests began taking a back burner while Lackey focused on his graduate work and career.

“I was working hard to finish grad school, and then I started at Westminster and the online test almost always overlapped with the beginning of the spring semester, which meant it wasn't the first thing on my mind at that time of year,” Lackey explained.

He was still a fan of the program and continued watching during the year of guest hosts, but said that tailed off as the search for a permanent host started to “get ugly.”

But over the summer of 2021, family and friends were urging Lackey to look into a special “Jeopardy!”  Professors’ Tournament.

“I found that the online tests were now available all the time, so I took it and thought I did pretty well,” he said. Soon he was invited to take a follow-up test over Zoom.

“I almost forgot about this test because I was in the middle of a summer research program with some collaborators at Duquesne University. While half of the people in the Zoom room showed up in shirts and ties, I took it in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap,” he said. Within a week of that test, Lackey was invited for a second Zoom interview that resembled his Nashville experience nearly a decade prior.

Potential contestants were in groups of three playing mock “Jeopardy!” games, “but with clicky pens held up to the camera in place of the famous ‘Jeopardy!’ buzzers.”

“I dressed nicer and, being quite experienced with emoting over Zoom and remembering the sorts of people from my first interview that I had seen on TV, came out of this interview thinking that I had kind of killed it,” Lackey said.

During the fall semester, Lackey received a call from a California area code. A contestant producer was calling to tell him he was heading to the “Jeopardy!” stage.

“I was fortunate that between my schedule in the fall semester and my wonderful colleagues in the chemistry department, I could carve out a Monday and Tuesday for a quick, semi-secret trip to California,” said Lackey.

And while Lackey can’t discuss details of his experience until after his episode (or episodes?) airs, since a week’s worth of episodes films in one day, he was able to meet all of this week’s contestants—including reigning champion Amy Schneider, the first female contestant to amass more than $1 million.

“We were filming before any of Amy’s games were on TV, so it felt like suddenly we were all in on one of the biggest secrets in television,” said Lackey.

Lackey is believed to be just the second Westminster employee to appear on the celebrated game show. In 1989, Dr. Richard Sprow, now professor of English emeritus, competed.

Lackey, originally from Hermitage, Pa., joined Westminster’s faculty in 2016. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Duquesne University and a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

To find out when "Jeopardy!" is on in your area, check the air times here:

Above: Patrick Lackey, right, with "Jeopardy!" host Ken Jennings.