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Former USC Marshall doctoral student returns to defend her Jeopardy! title

Courtney Paulson, who initially competed last spring, returns for the season opener of the long-running quiz show

Alex Trebek and Courtney Paulson
Host Alex Trebek and Courtney Paulson (Photo/Courtesy of Sony Entertainment)

Courtney Paulson was putting the finishing touches on her doctoral dissertation, examining the optimization of large-scale internet media campaigns last spring when she was invited to be an alternate on Jeopardy!

It was not great timing. Competing in the long-running game show was a childhood dream. But between completing her PhD in statistics at the USC Marshall School of Business and interviewing for faculty positions around the country, she knew she’d have little time to prepare.

But she was one of two alternates that day — local residents in the qualified pool often are asked to come by just in case an out-of-town contestant falls through — so she wasn’t too worried. She’d enjoy a stress-free day, meet host Alex Trebek and return home to work on her dissertation.

But a show producer told her otherwise … she was in.

“I had to talk myself down and remember that most people don’t get this opportunity,” she said.

Despite her initial jitters, the USC Marshall scholar went into Final Jeopardy! with a score nearly twice her closest opponent and was the only one to get the question right to walk away with $11,700 and the chance to play again.

This week she returns to open the new season as champion.

Growing up on Jeopardy!

Paulson grew up in Minnesota in a Jeopardy! household. Her parents watched the show daily. She and her sisters had a limit on the hours of television they were allowed to watch, but Jeopardy! didn’t count.

Paulson first auditioned for the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament as a high school student. The process for getting on the show begins with a 50-question online test. Those who do well are randomly selected to participate in an in-person interview. Over the next 18 months, about 10 percent of those who audition are given the opportunity to appear on the show based on a combination of test scores, audience appeal and luck.

She wasn’t chosen for the Teen Tournament. But over the next decade, she kept her hand in the game by taking the online test whenever she had time. She’d never been asked to audition — until this year.

Keeping the mind sharp

Paulson, 27, earned her B.S. in statistics from the University of Central Florida in 2011 and went right into the data sciences and operations (statistics) doctoral program at USC Marshall. She credits her PhD adviser, Gareth James, vice dean for faculty and academic affairs, holder of the E. Morgan Stanley Chair in Business Administration and professor of data sciences and operations, with helping her become a scholar.

“I wouldn’t have a PhD if not for Professor James,” Paulson said. “I came into the program without a master’s degree, so everything I know about research, I learned from him. He was a huge help with finding and working on my project. I feel USC Marshall was very good preparation for this next step in my life.”

By the time her first episode aired on July 29, she had already moved onto that next step — joining the University of Maryland as an assistant professor of decision, operations and information technologies at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

We are all very proud of Courtney’s achievements.

Gareth James

“We are all very proud of Courtney’s achievements,” James said. “She is not only a great scholar but a fantastic teacher, and her success on Jeopardy! is just further evidence of her wide-ranging abilities.”

How to become a champ

Paulson entered the game feeling strongest in the areas of history, sports, science, math and word origins. She wasn’t wrong. The Final Jeopardy! clue in the category Colleges & Universities was: This Catholic university gets its name from the Latin for “New” and “House,” and was in the news in spring 2016.

Paulson, who’d taken Latin in high school, knew her sports headlines and had just finished researching universities for job leads, knew the answer: “What is Villanova University?”

She won that round and went on to finish the season as champion.

“I put my chances of winning at 33 percent, maybe lower,” Paulson said. “I think most Jeopardy! champs realize they got pretty lucky. Anyone on that stage could have won. I’m going to remember the questions I got wrong, but at the end, I get to say I’m a Jeopardy! champion.”

Will Professor Paulson continue her winning streak? Tune in Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KABC-TV Channel 7 to find out.

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