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Sophomore competing in Jeopardy! college contest

By Carol Ness

Alex Trebek, Niki Peters
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek poses with Niki Peters during a taping break. (Jeopardy! photo courtesy of Niki Peters)

Sophomore Niki Peters has been obsessed with trivia for as long as she can remember. She’s also a major player in the quiz bowl world. And she’s a serious scientist, studying integrative biology with the intention of heading to medical school.

Alex Trebek, Niki Peters

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek poses with Niki Peters during a taping break. ( Jeopardy! photo courtesy of Niki Peters)

That skill set — along with an energetic good humor — combined to win Peters a place in the Jeopardy! College Championship , which runs each night this week on ABC. Peters is one of 15 students who made it to the quiz show’s college competition from among 15,000 contenders; she goes up against two other students in Friday night’s episode (7 p.m. on KGO-TV).

The show was actually taped in Los Angeles over two days in early January, but Peters is sworn to secrecy about details — especially how she did. But she did talk about what it what it was like to be on the show.

“I was pretty nervous, having to seem smart on national television,” she says. And a case of the flu turned things into “a total disaster in terms of slowing down the reflexes I needed to buzz in fast.” But, she adds, “Things ended up all right.”

Peters grew up in Boise, Idaho, the daughter of two engineers. Her mother is Chinese, and the family spent two years in Shanghai when Peters was in sixth and seventh grades. In Boise, she went to Timberline High School and the Treasure Valley Math and Science Center at the same time, and also did two internships: first with a professor at Idaho State’s College of Pharmacy doing computational chemistry research on treating addiction and schizophrenia, and later in a lab at Boise State researching the effects of collagen on human breast cancer cells.

All 15 college finalists on Jeopardy set

Niki Peters (bottom row, far left) poses with the rest of the quarterfinalists in front of the Jeopardy! game board. ( Jeopardy! photo courtesy of Niki Peters)

Since eighth grade, she’s played quiz bowl, and is currently co-president of Berkeley’s quiz bowl club, which is one of the largest in the world. In fact, Berkeley’s highly active quiz bowl team was a big reason she wanted to come here. “Also, it’s an amazing, prestigious school, and it happens to be the town where my favorite poem (“Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg) was written,” she says.

Berkeley seemed like a long shot, though, for an Idaho kid. But then, halfway through her senior year in high school, her mother landed a job in Silicon Valley and the family moved to San Jose.

“I got super lucky,” she says.

Through quiz bowl, as well as History Bowl and National Science Bowl, Peters says she’s competed in countless quiz competitions — but Jeopardy! was her first quiz show. To become a contestant, she took an online test In October, along with about 15,000 others. Of those, 200 were picked for in-person auditions in Los Angeles in November. There, Peters took a written test, underwent a personality interview and played a mock game of Jeopardy! with about 20 other people.

“A month later, that’s when I got what’s known as The Call — inviting me to the College Championship!” she says.

She announced it to her FaceBook friends with this status update: “when u dying bc you gotta leave LA and do homework bUT AT LEAST YOU’RE GOING TO BE ON COLLEGE JEOPARDY WHAAAAAAAAA”

She won’t say what categories she faced. “I was hoping for a lot of literature and wordplay categories, since I haven’t been caught up on pop culture or politics since I moved back to the States from China,” she says. “I marathoned a lot of Colbert to get ready for that before the filming.”

When she was finally playing, in a blue and gold Berkeley sweatshirt, the time went by fast, she says. She worried that she’d be called out for interrupting host Alex Trebek quite often, but explains: “I wanted to hear as many questions as possible!”

A promo for the championship says Jeopardy! “history was made” during the competition. All Peters would say was that “it’s actually insane.”

On Friday night, she’s holding a watching party at Pappy’s on Telegraph Avenue. And if she survives the quarterfinals, she’ll be back next week. “Pappy’s has rented me their entire bottom floor for however many episodes I end up on,” she says, mysteriously.