Speedy buzzing, bonus rounds and Buffy the bat

Meet Imperial’s University Challenge team

Max, Fatima, Michael and Gilbert standing outside the Students' Union

Max, Fatima, Michael and Gilbert standing outside the Students' Union

Max, Fatima, Michael and Gilbert standing outside the Students' Union

After competing in three gruelling rounds, Imperial’s University Challenge team are through to the semi-finals of the television quiz programme. Get to know the masterminds that make up Imperial’s team. 

Fatima Sheriff

From Hitchin, Fatima is studying our MSc in Science Communication. She is also President of the Quiz Society. Her specialist subjects are literature, feminism, human anatomy and neuroscience. Fatima is also a freelance film critic.   

Fatima smiling

Fatima Sheriff

Fatima smiling outside

Fatima Sheriff

Fatima Sheriff

Fatima Sheriff

How do you prepare for the matches?  

Individually, we all made flash cards for our specialist topics apart from Max who is a very efficient learner. It is how I learned prize winners like the Bookers because knowing them gives you a good grounding in whatever field you’re learning.  

Our main method of practice was watching a lot of old episodes of University Challenge together and trying to buzz in before the teams did on screen, but otherwise we played a lot of different kinds of quiz. Everything from practice sets of Mimir’s Well to the Saturday Guardian Quiz, which is great for bonus conferring because it is intriguingly written and well-researched. Like many other teams, we played in UK Quizbowl tournaments together which are daunting at first but the best for getting used to a buzzer and facing academic competition.  

We became very close as a team. Before our first round we had not met since the trials and even then, we had not been picked as a team. We trained for six months exclusively on Zoom and despite the stress of the cameras, it was really nice to be reunited.  

Tell us more about our Imperial mascot that comes with you to matches  

I bought a little Jellycat toy around the time I went to trials, then I asked the team, ‘Hey guys, why don’t we have this bat be our mascot?’ They all agreed because it was either that or Gilbert’s sloth pillow, which is adorable but a little large! Once we knew we were on the show, I embroidered a little bib on the bat with the Imperial blue ‘I’ onto it. Her name’s Buffy the bat, inspired by my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer!  

The team's mascot, Buffy the bat

The team's mascot, Buffy the bat

The team's mascot, Buffy the bat

How does it feel being the only woman on the team?  

I have little competition when it comes to best dressed! And I’m shorter than everyone else – even though we’re sat behind the University Challenge desk, throughout the whole experience I was wearing heels. They actually make Michael’s seat lower so the height difference isn’t as stark as he’s quite tall! 

Otherwise, I make good use of the “for a dollar, name a woman!” meme, but the team fits together well because I can focus on my passion for women’s history knowing they can cover the rest. I had an inferiority complex, but that was mainly inexperience because I’d never done professional quizzing before. The boys are lovely, including our coach, Michael Kohn, who really soothed my nerves and helped me settle in. Now I'm president of the society and have a supportive community of female quizzers from other universities.  

How have your friends and family reacted to your success in University Challenge so far?  

My parents have had to live with me, so they’ve found it quite annoying because I’m always quizzing! I didn’t expect to get far and was very surprised when I made it on the team, but my friends have always believed in me. Lana especially got us very chaotically playing the Guardian Quiz during the pandemic and was honoured to read questions to the team.  

Tell us your favourite meme from all the social media attention you and the team have had. 

There’s one reviewer called Ariadne who I really like on Twitter. There was a moment where we get a bonus set on fungi. Max says, "It’s the disgusting looking thing" and Ariadne tweeted, "I have a name Zeng!: which was hilarious. And in the glacier bonus set, Michael’s satisfying persistence in guessing “is it a moraine?!” is a personal highlight for me.  

Have you had any star-studded moments since being on the show?  

In terms of people I admire, it was an honour to be mentioned by Dr Jess Wade, Imperial College Research Fellow, who does incredible work on the biographies of women in STEM. Dallas Campbell, the science communicator, also mentioned me in a tweet and Darragh Ennis, the Chaser, has been really lovely about our episodes.   

My old biology schoolteacher used to run her own version of University Challenge in class to test us on module content and she was really pleased that I was on the show, although she chastised me for being beaten to meiosis! 

What is something that has taken you by surprise in this journey?  

I think I’ve surprised myself. It turns out I have a really good instinctive memory. Even when I’m not actively studying, I’m still absorbing things.  

You’re also a film critic, what’s on your list to watch coming up?  

In cinemas right now, my priority is Cyrano, the Joe Wright musical with Peter Dinklage, it looks so lavish and moving. There’s also another film by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the director of the glorious Drive My Car which should be a treat, and I still haven't seen the new Pedro Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers.

Michael Mays

Michael is doing a PhD in Computational Fluid Dynamics in the Department of Aeronautics. His specialist subjects are literature, history and philosophy. Michael is also the Chair of Imperial’s Book Club and is from Montrose, Scotland. He is the captain of this year’s University Challenge team.

Michael smiling in a red jumper

Michael Mays

Michael smiling outdoors in a coat and scarf

Michael Mays

Michael Mays

Michael Mays

Tell us how you got into quizzes. 

When I was in the last year of primary school, I was in a quiz competition – I think it’s called the Rotary quiz.  Then when I came to Imperial, I played pub quizzes occasionally but never anything official. The Imperial Book Club ran a joint literature-based quiz event with the Quiz Society. After I did that, the captain of the previous year's University Challenge team, Michael Kohn, said that I should come along to Quiz Society.   

How much pressure have you felt as the captain to lead Imperial to victory?  

We were all happy if we just made it past the second round! Michael Kohn has been very supportive. People from the team before him as well, Conor and Richard, have also been very nice and helpful for training. As a team, I think we had fun with it, rather than feeling the need to do brilliantly. 

What are your tactics for answering questions?  

We all have our specialisms and so we all have a rough idea of what everyone else knows. So if you hear a geography question coming, you know to leave it for Max. You can prepare, but you just end up buzzing when you think you know the answer.  

It’s more tactical with the discussions and bonuses. Michael Kohn always used to tell us to try and get the first buzz to psychologically help you out. When you don't know some things and you get beat, then there's nothing you can do about that. You have to be prepared to keep calm and make the effort to come back rather than just fall apart. 

Who has been your toughest opponent?  

I think ironically enough, the very first match we played against Cambridge, St John's. They're a really strong team. Reading were also very good and I think the score is very deceptive because if you watch it back, you can see Michael Hutchinson buzzing fractions of a second behind all of us. It really could have been a lot closer as a match.  

The University Challenge team doing some revision

The team doing some revision

The team doing some revision

In a few words, what do you each of your team member bring to the Imperial team?  

When I think of Max, I think of insane speed of recall. Fatima is very bubbly, confident and brilliant at her subjects. She's just in her own fields with such a brilliant knowledge. Gilbert is a bit like me, an all-rounder. He and I share a classical music passion.  

How do you think the rest of the team would describe you? 

There’s a running joke within the team about me having the personality of a 50-year-old man! If there’s a question about something modern, I've usually never heard of it, but if it's something old, I tend to know about it. 

How have your friends and family reacted to your success so far?  

My family back home is very ecstatic. My parents are very enthused. My dad's got his whole side of the family watching. I don't think it's something that my aunts, uncles and cousins would normally watch. I'm pretty happy about that. My friends at Imperial are all obviously excited, making some jokes. Overall, it's very positive.  

There’s been a lot of social media activity around the team, both positive and some negative. Has that been tough to deal with? 

Most of it is fine and I don't mind people making jokes. There's lots of people who are very appreciative of Max and his abilities. I'm glad for Max as it's good to be recognised as a great quiz player.  

Most of the criticism comes from a good place. I think there's people who are concerned that the show historically hasn't had much representation of different types of people and there’s a desire for that to be improved.  

But I think there's also just an element of people misunderstanding. On the show, I can't hear Max through my own ears because of the glass screens, but I can hear his voice loud and clear because we wear in-ear pieces. I can hear the whole team regardless of the way I’m facing. Depending on how the questions fall you end up looking one way or the other way depending on who’s specialty you think it is. There's not much opportunity for general conversation. In the moment, you're just concerned about how to get the answer as fast as possible. 

I think from the perspective of our team, we know each other. We’re all good friends and have spent over a year with each other now. If any of the team members had any concerns, I’m sure they wouldn’t shy away from telling me. But generally, we take the good and bad of the social media experience together, in our stride and with humour.  

What have you been reading this year that you’ve enjoyed?  

With the Book Club, we just read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize winner. That was an interesting dystopian science fiction book. Fatima lent me her copy of Gabriel García Márquez's, Love in the Time of Cholera, so I'm reading that now. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was by him and that's an excellent book. My favourite author is John Steinbeck, in particular his The Grapes of Wrath

Bonus round!

Best moment in your University Challenge journey so far:
The first question of the second match that we played against University of Exeter. The answer was about the assassin Charlotte Corday, but I knew it because my history teacher in school had a similar last name - that's the only reason I knew the answer!  

Most nerve-wracking moment:
Probably having to sit on the other side in the studio for the semi-final. In all our previous matches we’ve always been on the right-hand side, closer to Jeremy Paxman. When you get to the semi-final, as we qualified first, we’re on the first side which is the left. It’s nerve-wracking to be in a different seat with a different buzzer sound! 

Rituals before a match:
I wake up pretty tired so I have around 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning. I also have a big breakfast because I get really hungry during a day of filming. We always had a big book of UC questions which we’d read from before a match as well. Whenever I go up to Salford for filming, I bring my own tea bags that I like to drink because the tea the hotel provides is grim. This might vary between Earl Gray, Assam or Empress Gray and I have it probably seven times a day, on average.

Most nerve-wracking moment:
The only time so far that we’ve not been in the lead has been against Reading. They were beating us by 55 points, which is more than 2 full sets of questions. We had to recoup that loss by getting several consecutive starter rounds.  

Gilbert Jackson 

From Bury St Edmund’s, Gilbert is studying an MSci in Chemistry. He is a member of Imperial’s Quiz Society. Gilbert is also an organist and is part of the Imperial College Chamber Choir.  His specialist subjects are music, art, natural history, architecture and ecology. 

Gilbert smiling in a blue jumper

Gilbert Jackson

Gilbert smiling outside in a coat

Gilbert Jackson

Gilbert Jackson

Gilbert Jackson

What made you want to go on University Challenge?  

I've wanted to do it since I was 10 years old - I used to watch the programme with my parents in the living room. I’ve always wanted to be on that panel. 

How is the Imperial University Challenge team selected?

The Imperial Quiz Society selects the team put forward. Generally, we start with a written test of 100 questions set by previous contestants, which is hard but the score threshold is low, and you get rewarded for decent guesses. Then in a second round, those who have passed play a buzzer round, where you don’t need to be the best but if you work well with other people and thrive in a tricky specialism, you’ll likely do well. From there, the lucky five (including reserve) go through the BBC’s process a few months later, which is a similar written test and a group interview with the producers to gauge personality and enthusiasm.  

How have you built up your music knowledge over time?  

It's no easy feat. I've been listening to classical music since I was four. Being a musician and playing lots of music every day, you build up your repertoire and your knowledge of how composers work, and what they sound like. For me understanding jazz music was hard to revise because I don't regularly listen to it. Having to memorise all the standards, and people who performed them, when and with whom, was always tricky.  

Gilbert before a match with his coffee

Gilbert before a match with his coffee

Gilbert before a match with his coffee

What do you wish the outside world knew about the filming process? 

Everything because no one knows anything about it. It's pretty daunting. They don't know that it's not live. The second thing is people think it's unedited when there’s a lot of editing. There's a lot of stopping, starting and cutting. There's different camera work and angles. People also make mistakes. Sometimes Jeremy makes mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes. By no means is the filming smooth. It's very rough around the edges. They just make it look smooth because they're professionals who are trained to edit. Also as a team we’re fairly efficient when it comes to conferring, so after editing it can sometimes seem like we don’t confer a lot but actually we’re just very efficient and we all know what we know content wise. At the end of the day, filming can take up to an hour for a half-hour episode. 

The team’s journey so far… 
First round – 13 September 2021
St John's College, Cambridge vs. Imperial College London 
Imperial win 155-210
Second round – 3 January 2022 
University of Exeter vs. Imperial College London 
Imperial win 70-205
Quarter finals – 17 January 2022 
King's College London vs. Imperial College London 
Imperial win 50-235
Semi-finals – 21 March 2022 
Imperial College London vs. Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Which question keeps playing on your mind?  

It was one that I did get, but I messed up the word order. I meant to say woodworms and I said "wormwood". When you're on TV, you're really nervous and so you splatter it out. As soon as I said it, I thought, "I have made such a big mistake. I shouldn't have said that”. I was quite relieved that the other team didn't get the answer from it. 

What is your favourite art gallery?  

I still think one of my favourites is the National Gallery in London. In my opinion, it's the definitive best. And I think it has such a wide variety of paintings by a wide variety of artists. Generally, it’s a nice place to go. Especially during weekdays when it’s so quiet.  

Do you have any advice for the Imperial University Challenge team of 2023?  

Just be really confident when it comes to answering. I think even if you get it wrong, it won't be the end of the world. I think the point of this is that for me, it was always a struggle because Twitter come at you for getting things wrong. Nice people who actually watch the show will probably like you as a person rather than how you answer. And definitely take all the time you can to visit galleries and museums. It really helps with all the revision, and it makes a nice fun day of it and helps break things up.  

Are there any other quiz game shows that you would really like to go on? 

My family keeps telling me to go on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire because if I can at least do a quiz show, I might as well make some money off it, at least you could pay off your student loans with that! 

Maximilian Zeng

From Singapore, Max is studying a BSc in Biochemistry. His specialist subjects are geography, history and languages.  

Max looking at the camera

Maximilian Zeng

Max smiling

Maximilian Zeng

Maximilian Zeng

Maximilian Zeng

Where did your love for geography start from?  

I like geography because I like history, anthropology and comparative linguistics. All of those are functions of geography. It allows you to understand the relationships between historical events, groups of people, and languages, and how they evolve, since all of those are obviously contingent on how people live and how people interact with the environment and topography around them.  

How did you develop your knowledge of geography to what it is now?  

I make it very clear to everyone who asks that I do not rote memorise. I encourage people not to do it as well and not to cram names. Geography, history, whatever I’m good at is about the relationships between things. I think that cramming names, including flash carding, for my subjects at least, makes you worse at the subject. I can understand carding for literature and the arts but to me it’s a no-no for geography and many aspects of history. 

How do you feel about being called a ‘human atlas’?  

I have gotten things wrong...I don’t feel pressure with that title right now as we’ve finished filming all the episodes, but I don’t know if I’d be able to say the same thing if the show was live. I definitely didn’t look forward to picture rounds during the actual filming process because often they’re on topics I find very boring, such as flags or just recognising countries (as was the case in the first round match). But I guess I still do well on them, and people are still impressed. 

You have a lot of media interest from your home country of Singapore! How do you feel about this and how have your friends and family reacted to your success? 

I have people from Singapore that I’m in touch with but most of my friends are European. My immediate family are there but they’ve only been able to view matches after they are aired in the UK. My old school mates do know about my participation in University Challenge, because I’ve done interviews with news media, so I have been receiving a bit of attention. Nothing too big.

How do you keep calm during the matches?  

I don’t, I’m very heated before every match. My team members will be joking with the other team. They’ll be all smiles whereas I will be pacing around trying not to vomit on one side of the room. The last match we had versus the University of Reading we started with a fairly large deficit in points. I was very anxious during that match. But it turns out I perform better in the buzzer quiz if I’m really nervous. 

Is there a question that you didn’t answer that still bothers you? 

I missed the Madagascar question at the beginning of the Reading match. It was filmed at 9am in the morning and I was half awake. Reading captain Michael Hutchison was completely awake and slamming the buzzer. I knew the answer to the Madagascar question and I did buzz at the same time as him, but he was slightly faster than me. That woke me up and caused me to buzz really quickly in the questions after that.  

What are your tactics for answering the questions?  

I don’t have any, besides buzzing when I know the answer. The reason why I’m seated far away from the captain is because either I know the answer or I don’t, so I don’t take as long to confer. I don’t take punts, so I don’t really have a tactic. Everyone takes more risks than me, which I don’t as I’m a very narrow specialist.  

You have YouTube videos dedicated to your participation on the show and there’s also been a Twitter stan account created for you. How do you feel about all the reaction that you’ve had on social media?  

I’m not aware of stan accounts and I know people have made videos of me, but I haven’t clicked on them. I guess it’s good to put on your CV. After I did interviews with news media, there’s been a fairly high number of people watching the episodes, but I don’t look at the comments that much.