We checked in with this year’s Imperial University Challenge team ahead of their next match against Durham on the 8 March.
After a fantastic quarter-final win on 15 February, when Imperial beat King’s by 265 points to 95, we caught up with our team to hear about their experience on the show so far: captain, Michael Kohn and Justin Wong, both from the Department of Mathematics, and Imran Abdul Rahman and Katherine Marrow, both from the Department of Physics.
The team shares what it’s like to be a contestant on the UK’s much-loved and prestigious academic quiz show, iconic moments from this series and their top quizzing tips…
How does it feel to be part on the very important UK TV fixture that is University Challenge?
Katie: The whole experience has just been so much fun – I think you can probably tell how much I’m enjoying it by watching me!
Imran: I enjoyed meeting lots of new people – especially the other contestants who were all really lovely. Preparing for the show meant I discovered topics that I didn’t even know I was interested in.
Michael: This year it was a bit difficult to socialise – we were kept very much apart from the other teams because of social distancing. But the contestants on the show have all shared this unique experience, and you’re all there because you’re interested in similar things, so I was keen to make an effort to get to know the other teams. Some of us have since become really close friends – I was in a tournament recently with a few of the other team captains. It was nice to be playing with them instead of against them, especially the Warwick captain, because of course Warwick beat us in the quarter final!
Katie: We’ve made friends with the Exeter team, who we played in our first-round play-off, and we have little Zoom sessions with them now! It was quite sad that we didn’t get to do the socialising because of the pandemic, so we’ve been trying to make up for that by setting up online meet ups.
What makes a good University Challenge contestant?
Michael: All you need is to be interested – that’s it. Everything else can be acquired over time.
Katie: An enjoyment of random facts helps, and being able to remember potentially quite useless pieces of knowledge!
Imran: Yeah, reading in general – or you can even just watch informative videos on YouTube like Justin! As you do more quizzes, and you continue your studies, I think you start to pay attention to your surroundings more. You start to realise that it’s life itself that is the source of quiz knowledge. Being more aware of the world around you and listening to the news definitely helps.
Justin: It’s really important to start with the subjects you’re interested in – it’s much easier to retain information, and keep up with training, if you’re genuinely interested in the subject.
How did you prepare for the show?
Justin: We didn’t really know each other before we were selected for the team, but we’ve managed to get along pretty well! We had twice-weekly practices in the run up to the show, and I think coming together to work on something for a reason helps you to create a bond.
Katie: We split all the topics we could think of between the four of us – and then you just have to go and read a lot of books and Wikipedia pages and make lists of things to learn. Many flashcards were created!
Michael: It has been noted by the internet that Katie and I seem to be sharing a private joke whenever a question on animals comes up, because Katie probably knows the most about this subject and yet for some reason…
Katie: Michael just keeps stealing all my glory basically!
Imran: The Imperial Quiz Society helped us to prepare too, in terms of practice tournaments, to get us used to playing together as a team.
Michael: People should check out the Quizbowl – it doesn’t suit everyone’s skill set, but it definitely helps people to get more comfortable with buzzing in, which is a skill you can improve for sure. Previous contestants also help new contestants – I’ve already got next year’s team under my wing!
How nervous did you get before going on set?
Justin: The first time was pretty bad actually, I was pretty nervous. There are a lot of cameras – more than I expected.
Michael: Yes, there’s a reason we lost the first match, and it was because we all looked like rabbits trapped in headlights. I’m really glad that there’s a higher scoring losing round – had we not had that second chance to get used to the cameras and the strangeness of being on set, we’d have gone out right in the first round.
Katie: I think it was easier once they stopped having audiences in the studio because of COVID-19. It felt much less like you were being watched when there wasn’t a studio audience there too, and that helped me relax I think.
Michael: In our first match I was so scared about the first question on classical music that I ended up getting it so wrong. Apart from that first round when I was terrified, the rest of the games I was just like, if I think I know the answer I’m going to buzz. I was often very wrong!
Katie: But you put in so much work Michael, and I think it really shows.
Michael: Yeah, but it’s such a team effort and it's really important to work together on those bonuses. I had a panic attack in the middle of one of the matches – the producers were really nice about it and I went outside to get some fresh air. I got really annoyed at myself about it, but I guess the point is that it can happen to anyone. And once I’d calmed down I thought, I’m just going to go for it in this music round. I think it’s important for people to know that you don’t have to have that confidence all the time to be on University Challenge.
In the past, the show has been challenged for its lack of diversity – why is it so important for them to tackle this?
Katie: Having a diverse team is incredibly important – it’s good for representation, but also it means you have a wider range of experience and knowledge. If everyone in your team is a white, straight man I think you’re limiting the team’s experience of the world.
Imran: The producers themselves are conscious of diversifying the questions.
Michael: And part of the appeal of University Challenge is that you’re representing your university. Our universities are – and should be increasingly – made up of many different people with many different experiences and backgrounds. It’s important that our teams demonstrate the make-up of student body that they’re representing.
Do you have any team rituals before the show?
Justin: We make memes.
Michael: Justin and Imran make memes of my performances!
Katie: And Michael has an inexhaustible supply of soft mints and just hands them out to everyone which gets us all on a sugar high.
Michael: Yep, you can tell which matches I’m on a sugar high – especially when we play Exeter and King’s!
Katie: For our first match we had a panic monster mascot that belongs to Imran.
Imran: It was a mascot for procrastination.
Michael: Turns out we didn’t need the panic monster, because that was me!
Katie: There were issues with the panic monster, however, because it was too big to sit on our desk, and we feared a procrastination panic monster might bring us bad luck. Our current mascot is a little donkey that belongs to my sister – who’s called Mildred apparently. There’s very little thought behind why Mildred was selected, but she looks cute!
Michael: Roger Tilling [the University Challenge announcer] would be my spiritual mascot. He actually pronounces my surname more accurately than I do!
Katie: It’s brilliant having a regular chat with him – his announcing voice is his actual voice!
What have been your favourite moments of the show so far?
Justin: The King’s win was definitely one of our best. It was close for a while… and then it wasn’t!
Katie: Yeah King’s was my favourite match in terms of the team’s feeling of achievement afterwards.
Michael: There was a question in our match against Exeter asking what decade a particular physics paper was published. I buzzed in ready to say the 1900s, thinking it was a paper by Einstein, but then realised they said James Clerk and thought, ah they’re talking about Maxwell! And changed my answer on the spot to a total guess that, thankfully, happened to be right, so there’s definitely a lot of luck involved too. And there’s a truly iconic starter in our next match, involving Imran, that will air on the 8 March, which was another of my favourite moments!
Justin: The bonuses on the Charlie Chaplin films were also great – Michael looks at Imran, and I look at Katie, and then Imran answers, but the funny thing was that he didn’t actually know any of the plots of the films, he just knew the titles!
Michael: Yes, so we managed to get two out of three questions on zero actual knowledge!
Any tips for keen quizzers out there?
Justin: A lot of it is educated guessing!
Michael: And being prepared to get things wrong. In the first round, we weren’t prepared to get things wrong, and that’s why we lost, whereas you can see as soon as we hit 275 against King’s I was just like, I’m going to buzz in on the rest of the starters no matter what they are because we’ve got some points to burn! I got two questions wrong – each minus five points – in fact I had the most minus fives of any player in the tournament, but I also got nine starters right, which is one of the highest individual scores. That’s how it goes.
Justin: In picture rounds you actually have to buzz before you can see the picture, otherwise you’re going to lose. It’s less obvious on TV, but we don’t see the picture until Jeremy stops reading the question, whereas on TV the picture is up from the beginning of the question. In the Warwick match, I’m pretty sure I buzzed before Jeremy even started reading the question!
Michael: Which was especially impressive because you had to give three answers as soon as you buzzed, and you managed to do it. It doesn’t always work, but yeah, it can pay off to take risks and buzz in almost as soon as the question is asked. There’s an art to a 50-50 guess!
Katie: And the same subjects come up multiple times.
Michael: Yes – plus there are quizzes out there for everyone. We might be good at University Challenge, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at quiz in general. As soon as you put me in front of a sports question I don’t know where to begin! There are loads of quizzes out there to get involved in – and to get better at – whatever your subject interests.
Imperial needs one more win to get through to the semi-finals, and we’re wishing our team all the best for their next match against Durham on Monday 8 March at 20.30 on BBC Two. Stay tuned for more soft mint infused quizzing, and iconic University Challenge TV moments...
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