Medical student asks the right questions and finishes second on recent episode of Jeopardy!

Each of the past three or four years, second-year medical student Johnna Mahoney took a timed, 50-question online qualification test to see if she could advance toward becoming a contestant on Jeopardy!, the popular TV quiz show she grew up watching.

In April of this year, the Penn State College of Medicine student finally got an e-mail inviting her to travel to New York City for an in-person audition – an honor given to only about 2,500 people annually. About 400 people appear on the game show each year.

“I always thought it was really cool – all the smartest people were on Jeopardy!” she said.

Mahoney appeared on an episode of the show that aired in November, taking second-place and winning $2,000. To get there, she would go from a hope in Hershey to the audition in New York and then a taping in Los Angeles, finishing her Jeopardy! journey back home with family and friends in Lancaster when the episode finally aired and she could talk about the experience.

At the audition, Mahoney was required to take another timed test and compete in a videotaped practice game. “They wanted to make sure you had a good personality and TV presence.”

In June, she got a phone call inviting her to fly to Los Angeles for a taping of the show: “It was originally supposed to happen in early August, but they hadn’t finished building the new set, so they had to push back the start of taping.”

At the end of September, Mahoney and her mother traveled to Los Angeles for four days. On Tuesday – taping day – contestants were shuttled from their hotel to the studio for three hours of orientation and practice with the buzzers. Then they filmed promotional spots.

Just as she was grabbing a pastry from the continental breakfast table, producers drew her name for the first of five shows that would be taped that day.

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek with contestant and Penn State College of Medicine student Johnna Mahoney

Penn State College of Medicine student Johnna Mahoney met Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek when she was a contestant on the show in November and placed second.

Contrary to rumors she heard before going to Los Angeles, Mahoney learned that contestants don’t get any kind of study guide, nor do they find out the categories ahead of time. And of course, there’s the art of using the buzzer: “You have to wait until just the right moment,” she said.She didn’t ring in on time for a couple of medical questions in the “Heal Thyself” category that she knew the answers to, but she enjoyed guessing answers to a category called “Words with ‘ove’” in them.

Mahoney said she didn’t study or practice in preparation for her appearance on Jeopardy!

“I actually feel like I know less overall knowledge now than I used to because I’m spending all my time studying diseases.”

The Final Jeopardy! question stumped all three contestants.

“It was ridiculously hard,” Mahoney recalled. “Afterward, Alex (Trebek – the show’s host), said it was the most difficult Final Jeopardy! question he had seen in a while.”

Although she doesn’t recall the exact wording, Mahoney said it was something about the country where the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner was imprisoned when he won that award. Mahoney and another contestant both guessed South Africa. The third contestant guessed China. The correct answer, however, was Myanmar.

Mahoney said reactions from friends, family members and classmates about her appearance on the show have been positive: “They said I seemed very poised.”

The second-place win, prize money, an excuse to travel to L.A., and a chance to meet and get her photo with Alex Trebek made the experience memorable.

“I don’t have any regrets about it – that I should have won or answered more questions,” she said. “I feel like I did the best I could.”

Mahoney’s appearance is the second time in recent months the College of Medicine has been part of a Jeopardy! episode. Back in October, contestants had to answer this question in the “State the State University” category: “This University’s College of Medicine is located at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.”

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