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Aggie engineer wins $67,000

Aggie engineer wins $67,000

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The clue: Close on a house, defend a doctoral thesis and compete on Jeopardy!

The answer: What did Susan Mitchell do between Feb. 23 and March 1?

For the 25-year-old chemical engineer from Houston, it turned out to be a successful week. She earned her doctorate from Texas A&M University and won $67,000 on the TV game show, which made signing the papers for her first house a lot easier.

Mitchell's Jeopardy! experience started in January 2006 when she took a test on the show's Web site.

"I used to watch the show a lot in high school," Mitchell said, "but I didn't have as much time to watch it in college. I always had a wish to be on it, though."

Last summer, Mitchell was invited to a live audition in Atlanta.

"I had to pay all my own expenses, and I was lucky to have a former roommate who lived there that I could stay with."

Aspiring contestants had to take another test and play a shortened version of the game.

"I think they were looking for people who wouldn't freeze, who would keep the game going and who had high energy," Mitchell said. She also had to write five stories about herself.

"I was extremely nervous," she said. "It seemed like all the other people were very excited. I was afraid I wasn't showing enough energy."

The producers must have liked what they saw, because Mitchell got a call in early February that she had been chosen to be on the show. Again, she had to pay all her own expenses.

"I was tremendously excited," she said, "but the timing caused some concern. They wanted me there [at the Los Angeles studio] Feb. 27, and I was supposed to close on my house March 1. I had to take the red-eye back to Houston to make it."

Jeopardy! tapes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, five shows per day.

"You have to be at the studio at 8:30 a.m. and fill out paperwork that takes about two hours," Mitchell said.

"Then you have a short practice session with the buzzers. The buzzer is extremely important. It doesn't work until [host] Alex Trebek finishes reading the clue. Then a light flashes signaling that the buzzer is active. It is very important to get a feel for the timing."

Each contestant's name was put on an index card, and someone drew two names to determine who would start the day against the returning champion.

"You get to interact with the other contestants, and everyone was very nice. That made the experience less stressful," Mitchell said.

Contestants sit in the audience until chosen to be on stage.

"I was extremely nervous. I was shaking in the audience. I told myself, 'If things go horribly wrong, at least it will be three months before anyone sees it.'"

Mitchell's name was chosen for the fourth game on Tuesday. One of the categories was "Dude-eronomy."

"The Bible is my thing," Mitchell said, "but I didn't recognize that category. I thought it had something to do with "dude," like dude ranch. There is so much going on up there, my brain turned to mush. I used to be critical of contestants when I was watching, but it is a lot harder than it looks. You don't even know what the score is."

Mitchell caught an unintended break during a commercial pause. "The show is taped in real time," she explained. During the break, a staff member expressed surprise that the contestants were avoiding the Bible category.

So Mitchell chose "Dude-eronomy" and won enough money for the lead going into Final Jeopardy. "The category was Artists, and I felt pretty confident about that. I wagered $10,000 so if the second-place person doubled her bet, I'd still have her beat.

"My feeling is that I would rather lose because I bet too much than not enough. During Final Jeopardy, you only have 30 seconds, and the music that the television audience hears is playing loudly in the studio. The pen you write with is just like one of those credit card machines, and it doesn't work all that well."

The question was "Who was Vincent Van Gogh?" Mitchell got it right, and the second-place contestant missed it.

"I was exhilarated," Mitchell said. "All I had wanted was to win one game to show I was good at Jeopardy! and get some money."

Mitchell won the second game, which meant she would spend the night and return Wednesday.

"They ask you to bring two sets of clothes. They said that if you get to be on three times, no one remembers what you wore the first time. They also recommended two-piece outfits so you could quickly change between shows. You only have about five minutes, just enough for them to touch up your makeup."

Mitchell lost on her fifth show, but not before running her total winnings to almost $70,000.

At the end, Mitchell was "tired and emotionally exhausted. No one wants to lose, but I was ready to go home."

"California and federal taxes will take a big piece" of the winnings, Mitchell said. She won't receive her check until 120 days after the shows aired, which was in mid-June. Part of the money will go toward the house and part will go to her church, with the rest put in savings.

Watching the show on television more than three months after taping was strange, Mitchell said.

"Most people are their own worst critics. It was hard to watch myself. Actually, everything was a blur when I was up there, so I noticed things I didn't remember. And I was still nervous."

Reflecting on the experience after all of the shows aired, Mitchell still had mixed emotions.

"It was a great experience, but it was frustrating because I couldn't tell anyone except my parents. The show's staff was wonderful. They have to deal with people who are incredibly nervous, and they make it an enjoyable experience. ...

"The question I've been asked the most is why I said I was from College Station when I live in Houston now, but I lived in College Station for eight years, and it was extra special that I could represent Texas A&M. I actually got to mention A&M on the first show, and not everybody gets to mention their school.

"Finally, it's really neat to hear from people I haven't seen since I was an undergraduate."

Mitchell said she probably wouldn't try out for another game show. She's busy learning her new job as a safety engineer for Exxon Mobil.

"No other show is like Jeopardy! There are no gimmicks. It is what it is."

• Jim Butler's e-mail address is


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