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College of Science lab instructor Craig Tollin fulfills lifelong dream with appearance on 'Jeopardy!'

December 11, 2017

Craig Tollin with Alex Trebek on stage of Jeopardy!

Craig Tollin with Alex Trebek
Craig Tollin (left) poses with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek at an August taping in Los Angeles.

Craig Tollin grew up watching the popular game show “Jeopardy!” with his family, competing with them as a child to see who could solve the answers first.

Now, Tollin, a lab instructor with the Virginia Tech College of Science’s Academy of Integrated Sciences, will appear as a contestant on the game show, airing Thursday, Dec. 14. (Locally, the show will air on WDBJ 7 at 7:30 p.m. Check your local listings at the handy Jeopardy! Find My Station website.)

Tollin always knew that he wanted to compete on the show, and took the timed, 50-question online test audition every year for more than a decade. He was finally invited to an in-person audition in April 2016 and this past July was called to be on the show.

That long-awaited call was unexpected as so much time had passed since the audition, Tollin said. After the caller asked a series of verification questions Tollin believed to simply be formality, he was finally told he would appear on air.

“I will say that I had trouble focusing on work the rest of that day,” said Tollin, a two-time graduate of Virginia Tech, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in biochemistry from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Leading up to the show’s August taping in Los Angeles, California, Tollin focused on buzzer work and categories in which he felt his knowledge to be the weakest – arts, literature, and classical music. He also spent time memorizing flashcards prepared by his wife, Meghan, and watching "Jeopardy!" reruns on YouTube and new episodes on television.

 

His first time on camera was to shoot a promo video for local TV spots. “That was probably the most nervous I was all day,” Tollin said. “Then you sit in the audience and wait until it’s your turn to be on, you go up to the podium, get mic’d up, Alex [Trebek, the show’s host] comes onto the stage, and all of a sudden you’re playing Jeopardy for real. Being on the show was an absolutely incredible experience.”

(How did he do? He’s not saying. Spoilers! And, of course, contractual obligation.)

Trivia has always been an important part of Tollin’s life. He played Trivial Pursuit countless times as a child at family gatherings, getting better at competing with the adults around him. “As I got older I would be included in team plays and just being able to compete with the grownups was a thrill,” he added. “I’ve always been a bit of a knowledge sponge, so trivia games scratched that competitive itch.”

Tollin’s love of knowledge directly applies to his work with students. He is a lab director and coordinator for the College of Science’s Integrated Science Curriculum (ISC) nanoscience program, system biology program, and School of Neuroscience. His duties put him in contact with hundreds of students each week. In addition to students, Tollin also works with teaching assistants to train them for work in laboratories.

“Some people are specialists, and are driven to go extremely deep in a handful of topics,” Tollin said. “I think I’m more of a generalist, someone who likes to know a little bit about everything. I think that’s actually helped me in my job with the Integrated Science Curriculum, because it’s a job that requires me to do just that, to know at least a little bit about a lot of topics across the breadth of science. I love what I do. I get to teach students about science, and right now it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.”

Tollin’s presence in the College of Science is immeasurable. “His contributions to the education of the students in these programs are tremendous,” said Michel Pleimling, director of the Academy of Integrated Science and a professor in the Department of Physics. “The students highly value Craig’s excellence in teaching labs and his dedication to providing the best possible lab experience.”

Tollin will be watching the show at home with family and friends. “While I’m looking forward to finally having my episode air, I think watching myself on television will be incredibly awkward,” Tollin said.

Written by Jessie Rogers, of Suffolk, Virginia, a senior in the Department of English, part of the College Liberal Arts and Human Sciences