CSE student wins Jeopardy! College Championship

Chemical engineering sophomore Nibir Sarma tackles trivia on television to win $100,000

April 17, 2020

Nibir Sarma watched his first episode of “Jeopardy!” the night before auditioning to be a contestant on the popular game show. Little did he know that he would soon be on the podium himself, winning first place and a prize of $100,000 in the 2020 Jeopardy! College Championship.

A veteran of high school Quiz Bowl—a trivia-based competition in which student teams are quizzed on different subjects—the College of Science and Engineering sophomore joined the University of Minnesota Quiz Bowl club his freshman year. Despite his trivia background, “Jeopardy!” didn’t pique Sarma’s interest until about two years ago.

“My friends and I would go on [a fan-created ‘Jeopardy!’ archive website] and play using the actual questions they used on the show,” said Sarma, a recipient of the University’s Presidential and Gold Scholarships and CSE’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Sciences Procter and Gamble Company Scholarship. “It came to a point where I thought, ‘I’m pretty good at this. I should try to get on the show.’”

After taking an online test and traveling to St. Louis for an in-person interview and audition, Sarma became one of 15 students nationwide to be selected for the annual “Jeopardy!” college competition, which aired April 6-17, 2020. With his quick wits and a few true double jeopardies, Sarma made the final round, battling it out against two other students and emerging victorious. 

“It definitely feels awesome to have won the tournament,” he said after the fact. “Once I hit the last Daily Double in the second day of finals—the one on which I wagered $5—that was when I was thinking to myself, ‘Yep, that's it. Game over.’”

Minnesotans everywhere rallied to support Nibir when his “Jeopardy!” episodes aired, with the Gopher Athletics Twitter account cheering him on as if he were one of their own.

“It's been amazing having the support of the U of M community and the entire state behind me,” he said. “I guess it's propelled me into a sort of quasi-celebrity status, so that's been the biggest difference it's made in my life so far.”

Nibir Sarma shares his journey from auditioning to competing in the Jeopardy! College Championship, airing April 6-17, 2020.

The more you know

In February, Sarma, who is studying chemical engineering with a double minor in computer science and math, flew to Los Angeles to film the tournament—though of course, he couldn't divulge how he did until the episodes aired in April.

Sarma said the most impactful part of the experience was meeting and getting to know the other contestants, with whom he plans to stay in contact in the years to come.

“Not everyone has the chance to be part of something big culturally like this and meet people from all across the U.S.,” he said.

“It was really cool having that experience," he said. "We had only known each other for a couple of days, but we got really close during those couple of days.”

It’s a similar sense of community that has kept Sarma involved in Quiz Bowl for so many years—apart from the appeal of trivia itself. The University of Minnesota team brings together students from colleges and disciplines across the Twin Cities campus.

“It’s a fun activity to do, both in high school and continuing on into college,” he said. “The main reason I still do quiz bowl is because the people on the [U of M] team are so nice, and we have a great community here.”

Access to student groups and communities such as these played into Sarma’s original decision to attend the University of Minnesota. Even before he started high school, Sarma participated in the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics  Program (UMTYMP) through CSE's School of Mathematics. 

“Coming to the U made the most sense to me," he said. "I felt comfortable coming here for college because I knew it was a place I could have community and fit in, where I wouldn’t feel out of place."

Perks of a packed schedule

Quiz Bowl is far from the only activity in which Sarma is involved. Last year, he conducted research under Professor Steve Kass in the Department of Chemistry, finding ways to synthesize catalysts for chemical reactions.

Now, Sarma is participating in CSE’s Engineering Co-op Program—he’s a process engineer at Suez Water Technologies and Solutions, where he aims to make the company’s water filtration technology more efficient. 

“Being able to work a real job has definitely opened my eyes,” Sarma said. “The stuff I’m doing now as a college student is basically exactly the same thing that someone who graduated college would be doing in that job. It’s given me a sneak preview into what working in industry will be like.”

Student participants of the 2020 Jeopardy! College Championship
CSE sophomore Nibir Sarma was chosen to compete in the 2020 Jeopardy! College Championships alongside 14 students from other U.S. universities.

Beyond that, the sophomore also participates in the University of Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, volunteers on the Science and Engineering Student Board, plays in the pep band at hockey games, and dabbles in intramural volleyball.

For reference, 5-6 p.m. is virtually his only slice of free time each day.

Despite having such a packed schedule, Sarma said being so busy has given him expert time management skills as well as taught him the value of non-academic extracurriculars.

“Especially things like quiz bowl or band, those are my stress-relievers—my happy places, if you will,” he explained. “When I’m in in band rehearsal or at a hockey game, that’s the only thing I have to focus on."

"It’s a really great way to practice self-care,” he said.

Sarma said he’s fortunate to have scholarships that lighten his financial burden as well.

“Getting financial support from the U was a big factor in me choosing to come here for college,” he said. “Because I don’t have to worry about paying as much as I would without scholarships, that means I can afford to take less credits per semester and lessen my workload. It’s made it easy for me to do things outside of school as well, like intramural volleyball or student groups or things like that.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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