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Therese Jones ’05 (right) with Jeopardy host Alex Trebek
Photo credit: Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

On Friday, March 4, an episode of Jeopardy! aired featuring State College native Therese Jones ’05 as a contestant. And it turns out that the show helped her to learn an interesting tidbit about herself.

“I figured out as I was looking up ancestry information to answer Jeopardy! fun facts that seven generations of my family have lived in Centre County,” she said. Jones’s parents and extended family reside in State College.

Following her studies within SCASD, Jones attended Penn State, graduating in 2009 with bachelor's degrees in astronomy, physics, German, and international studies. She then went to UC Berkeley for astrophysics, receiving her master's in 2013, and transferred programs to RAND, a global policy think tank, to pursue a PhD in space policy. “Remarkably,” Jones noted, “all of these degrees have managed to converge in my current work.”

During her time at SCASD schools, Jones’s academic interests merged with a competitive spirit through extracurricular activities. She joined the Science Olympiad at Park Forest Middle School, led by dedicated coach Steve McAninch. It was through her involvement in the club that Jones was able to teach herself a great deal of astronomy, physics, and engineering that would become central to her higher education and career pursuits.

Looking back on her time at State High, some of Jones’s fondest memories are of Quiz Bowl field trips—which ultimately helped her to prepare for her role on Jeopardy! “We traveled across the East Coast to tournaments at least once a month, and to national competitions across the country,” she said. Jones recalls how Julie Gittings, now-retired learning enrichment teacher who coached Quiz Bowl at the time, would hold mini pep rallies for the students at nationals. “I think her Quiz Bowl philosophy of ‘no shame, only points’ helped me out at least once on [Jeopardy!],” said Jones.

Throughout her years on the Quiz Bowl, Jones began to dream distantly of being a Jeopardy! contestant. At a national competition, she and her teammates got to meet Ken Jennings. The final year of her quiz bowl career coincided with Jennings’s Jeopardy! winning streak—to this day, he holds the record for longest run on the show. She idolized contestants then, but didn’t see auditioning for the show as a realistic possibility until she moved to LA and met former contestants who encouraged her to give it a shot. Last April, Jones took an online test, which landed her an in-person audition in July. The audition included a 50-question test, mock game, and interview. In October, she was invited onto the show, but she was in Vienna working on her dissertation. Her name went back into the contestant pool, and the call came again a month later. In mid-January, she was on the set. “They tape five shows a day, so it's a busy schedule,” said Jones. “It's also shot in real time—the game goes just as fast as you see on TV.”

When it came time to get to know the contestants during the show, even Alex Trebek was taken aback by Jones’s description of commercial human spaceflight—on which she is currently studying as she finishes her PhD. She revealed that companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic will be sending passengers into space much sooner than most people are aware.

While Jones and her competitors were stumped by a Final Jeopardy question requiring knowledge of early-‘70s pop music, leaving Jones in second place, she walked away with a $2,000 consolation prize—and the honor of having been a Jeopardy! contestant.

A television appearance is an interesting achievement to add to her lot, which currently includes spending months at the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, observing how countries cooperate on space matters. “Despite the politics, there are always aspects of space that are uniting,” said Jones. “The passion behind those involved in the industry is astounding!”

Jones encourages current students to broaden their horizons. She suggests seizing opportunities to travel, and maximizing the breadth of experiences available right here in the school district. “I am a firm believer in the concept that studying arts and humanities makes you a more creative thinker, which very science-focused students tend to neglect,” she said. From year to year, the classes that piqued her interest most were entirely different disciplines, ranging from Earth Science to World Cultures to Music Theory.

During her high school years, Jones packed as many classes and extracurriculars as possible into her schedule, satisfying her wide range of interests. Through extracurricular involvement in particular, she said, “the analytical and problem-solving skills I developed were invaluable in college.”

Dedication and balance have allowed Jones to create a well-rounded life. Today, she continues to build upon her athletic foundation from the State High Volleyball Team by playing various sports in her spare time. She also volunteers as a tutor for middle schoolers, and keeps her German fresh by attending regular German-speaking events.