Hung Pham grew up in Orange County, watching “Jeopardy!” on television and imagining himself as a contestant one day. The assistant adjunct professor of organic chemistry, who earned his UCLA doctorate under Kendall Houk, holder of UCLA’s distinguished research chair in chemistry and biochemistry, took the “Jeopardy!” online quiz many times, before fulfilling his dream in December.
The day after he finished grading final exams for the fall quarter, Pham filmed the episode, which aired Feb. 14.
What was it like being on “Jeopardy!” with champion and host Ken Jennings, who won more than $4 million on the show?
It was truly amazing! That short half-hour was enough for me to appreciate his professionalism, intelligence and — my personal favorite — his clever and snarky comments. I remember watching him during his historic run and cheering him on to see how far he could go, so being able to be on that very same stage with him was definitely surreal. Would I have also liked to win $4 million? Of course, but being in his presence was a good consolation prize.
How was being on the show, compared with how you imagined it to be from watching on television?
Watching and playing from home definitely do not prepare you for the real-life experience. From the beginning, you’re reminded that this is a nationally televised show, but the extremely supportive and accommodating production crew walks you through the entire process. The day of taping starts bright and early and goes until the evening, but they take good care of you, and being behind the scenes is definitely pretty cool. From the audience, the stage looks a lot smaller than on TV, but when you’re behind that podium, all of a sudden it looms large. And trust me, answering questions from the comfort of your own sofa without having to buzz in at the exact right time against the best of the best contenders and with no penalty for wrong answers … yeah, it’s quite different from being on that stage. The lights and cameras are directly on you, there are four or five areas to keep track of while you’re trying to answer each question — and there’s the fear of Ken’s disapproving “That’s not right,” hanging in the back of your mind. But before you know it, Final Jeopardy finishes and you’re walking off that stage, making way for the next contestants but keeping your head high because you tried your best.
Did you win a prize for finishing in second place?
Yes! Aside from having a memorable time and making some great new friends, I get to take home a cool $2,000.
Do you see any connection between “Jeopardy!” and teaching undergraduate chemistry? Did you learn anything from this experience that you can bring to your teaching and work in chemistry?
Hmm, any connections between the two? I suppose being on “Jeopardy!” and getting in front of a 300-person lecture for the first time are both surreal experiences that induce high levels of anxiety but end up finishing before you know it. Oh, and constantly being asked questions that you may or may not know the answers to.
I wouldn’t say this is new, but I always tell my students that the outcome of their exams and consequently their grades, is not as important as they may think. The process of learning and preparing for those assessments is so much more valuable than the result of the exam.
Whatever happens, happens. I definitely tried my best, but my opponent Dave was just too good on the buzzer. I still had a great experience and left that stage proud, knowing that I did the best I could. And I got the most important question right — shoutout to Taylor Swift!
Your father came to Orange County from Vietnam, spoke no English and worked his way up from janitor to product design engineer for an engineering firm without ever receiving a formal degree. What lessons have you learned from your father about perseverance and achieving your goals?
I think that question pretty much sums up my answer. Hearing stories about how he and his brothers had to flee their home country, not knowing whether they would survive, and having to work his way through various jobs in multiple cities just to earn enough money to live and to bring my mother and sister over from Vietnam — really puts things in perspective. My parents went through and gave up a lot in order for me to be here, so I don’t take these opportunities lightly. They showed me that with hard work and a lot of luck, achieving our goals is definitely possible. I want my students to know this, too, and to acknowledge that hard work never guarantees success but gives us a better chance of realizing it.
If I worked harder and studied more, could I have done better on “Jeopardy!” and in life? Possibly, but what’s important is to appreciate the opportunities and little victories along the way, even if we don’t always achieve our ultimate goals.
What are your future goals, concerning chemistry and UCLA?
I’m not too sure yet. I truly love teaching here, and when I signed on to lecture at UCLA in spring 2016, I wasn’t planning to continue doing so for as long as I have. I live in Orange County, which puts my commute between one to three hours each way. But for now, I’m content with where I am.
Is there anything else you would like to say about your “Jeopardy!” experiences?
I wish I had more time to prepare for the show instead of taping it during week 10 and finals week. But my biggest takeaway from the experience was the overwhelmingly large amount of support I received from all aspects of my life — family and friends, mentors and students, and everyone. Being an educator during these past few years has been anything but easy, but to be reminded of the fact that there are still lots of people out there who actually care about you and your well-being really meant the world, and I am so grateful to have had this experience. Now, what show should I go on next?