Emory summer scholar competes in Jeopardy! Teen Tournament

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | July 21, 2014

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Josiah Takang, an ION@Yerkes scholar working at Emory this summer, rubbed elbows with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek as a contestant in the quiz show's popular Teen Tournament. Photo courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Category: Talented Teens —"This 16-year-old summer research scholar at the Institute on Neuroscience (ION)@Yerkes earned a coveted spot to compete in the 2014 Jeopardy! Teen Tournament…"

If you answered "Who is Josiah Takang of Douglasville, GA?" you'd be right.

This week, Takang can be found on the Emory campus, where he is conducting research in the biomedical imaging lab of Xiaoping Hu, professor and director of the Biomedical Engineering and Technology Center in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

His work is part of the Institute of Neuroscience (ION)@Yerkes summer program, a collaboration between Emory and Georgia State University that was founded in 2003 to provide high school students with an introduction to neuroscience through hands-on research experience.

But on Monday, July 21, Takang also could be seen on television, among the first round of contestants to appear on the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament, where young brainiacs from across the nation battle it out for the chance at a $75,000 grand prize.

Top qualifiers from the preliminary rounds will advance to tournament finals, which air July 31 and Aug. 1 at 7:30 p.m. on WXIA-TV, channel 11.

This year, the nationally televised event features 15 competitors, ages 13-17, from across the U.S. The odds of earning a spot on the coveted teen competition: around 1 in 100,000. While Takang placed third in his episode, which aired Monday, he was thrilled to make it on the show.

Earning a chance to appear on the show was a wild — and somewhat unexpected — ride, "a really illuminating experience," he says, and a lot more challenging than playing along at home in front of the television.

Category: When Stars AlignYears of competing on academic quiz bowl teams and a general fascination with learning led to this opportunity for Josiah Takang.

Takang traces his ambition to appear on Jeopardy! back to his parents, Stella and Solomon Takang, who watch the program with him almost every evening.

"When I was a kid, they gave me a lot of encyclopedia-type books to read," says Takang, a rising senior at Douglas County High School who confesses that he's wanted to appear on the game show since he was in middle school.

"We also had a history and science bowl at our school, and I participated in those, which was good preparation," he adds.

But it was while watching Jeopardy! last year that Takang spotted a commercial advertising a timed online test for prospective teen tournament contestants. Takang was among some 300,000 youths who took the 50-question test. Of those who passed, about 300 were invited to attend regional auditions, which featured another 50-question exam, interviews and a mock Jeopardy! game.

Takang was invited to regional auditions in Atlanta last November. In February, his family learned he'd been selected to compete, with taping to begin in the midst of his high school quiz bowl season — a fact that actually played in his favor.

"We had a tournament the day before I flew to Culver City (California) for the taping, so our quiz bowl practices served a dual purpose — preparing the team for our regional tournament and preparing me for Jeopardy!, so they were a big help," he says.

Category: Things I Learned On Jeopardy! — Why buzzers and quick reflexes matter

Once the competition began, Takang found it to be "both nerve-wracking and fun at the same time," he says. "I mean, you have Alex Trebek, of all people, looking at you — and he has a wry sense of humor."

On his high school quiz bowl team, Takang's title is "the generalist." Favorite categories include science, geography and sports trivia, though his ability to recite obscure sports statistics has been known to make friends groan.

While the questions during the teen tournament weren't unexpected, "the big adjustment was there are two different types of buzzers used for quiz bowl and Jeopardy!," he recalls. "In Jeopardy! you have to hit in at the exact millisecond. It's not so much what you know as when you can buzz in."

Beyond the age of the contestants, Takang says he noted little difference between the teen tournament and regular Jeopardy!

"I think that Alex Trebek is actually a bit more cordial," he says. "He (Trebek) generally says it's his favorite tournament of the year. And it was also special for him because it marked the 30th season of Jeopardy!"

Category: What I did on my summer vacation — Where a high school student can get experience analyzing MRI scans

Though Takang expected watching himself compete on television to be "a surreal experience," he says his attention has been absorbed lately by his lab work at Emory, analyzing data from functional MRI scans.

"For my project, I'm looking at the motor network and what comes up on a scan when you engage in certain movement," he explains.

ION Program Director Kyle Frantz, a professor at Georgia State University who is director of science education for the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, says that the program serves about 10 students each summer. "We recruit the brightest and best applicants, mainly from the metro Atlanta area," she says.

One of the program goals has been to help bring greater diversity to neuroscience, where racial and ethnic minorities represent 10 percent or less of the research workforce. "Between 30 and 50 percent of our students come from demographic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science," Frantz notes.

Students typically live at home or stay with relatives and report to the Emory campus "for a crash course in neuroscience — a one-week course highlighting basic concepts," she says. "It's very intense."

Next, they join active research laboratories at institutions that have included Emory, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Marcus Autism Research Center, or Morehouse School of Medicine.

"They are working on mentored research projects in labs almost full-time for seven weeks," Frantz adds. "Every Friday we bring them back together for professional development workshops on topics that range from research ethics to writing for the sciences."

At the end of the program, students present their laboratory results at a research symposium, Frantz says, adding that ION scholars "are finding their ways to great things."

Over 100 students have participated in the program since its inception, she notes. Of those, some 60 percent have remained in the sciences.

"They report that they've benefited by interacting with a network of top-notch peers, and have learned so much through the research process that applies to any of the majors that they choose," Frantz says. "And they're doing fantastic things, going to outstanding institutions across the nation and abroad."

ION@Yerkes is funded by a grant from the National Institute on Mental Health.

As Takang considers college applications, he knows, "I'll probably want to major in biomedical engineering. My ultimate aspiration would be to become a neurosurgeon and also do lab research."

But he also might carve out time to return to Jeopardy! "Since Alex Trebek is said to be retiring in 2016 — and the rules say that if it's not the same host you can try out again — I'm thinking about trying out for the Jeopardy! College Championship."