Winning Personality

Local botany professor discusses her stint on Jeopardy!

Alisa Hove placed third in the Jeopardy! “Professors Tournament” that aired in December.
Photo by Jack Robert

Books are stacked up everywhere in Alisa Hove’s home. More books line a built-in shelf in the living room; more still are on her office’s shelves. Throughout the space, good amateur photographs are hung on the walls, chronicling world travels. 

Hove speaks four languages and has an eye for composition: On top of the spinet piano are stacks of sheet music — original compositions (not the easy versions) by the great masters. 

In the back of the house, her husband is busy designing websites and the couple’s younger son, an eleventh grader, studies online. Their older son majors in chemistry at Warren Wilson College, where Hove is a botany professor.

Photo by Jack Robert

She is also the third-place winner in the championship round of Jeopardy!’s “Professors Tournament” that aired in December, hosted by Mayim Bialik. Dr. Hove pocketed $25,000, and the college got a priceless public-relations gold star.

Outside, in March, the brown, dry blossoms of last summer’s Black-eyed Susans lean against each other by the front door; Hove leaves the stalks for foraging birds to extract the seeds, and will trim them back later in the season. The chair of the college’s biology department, she also studies the genetics of wild American Ginseng — a rare, valuable plant native to the local mountains. 

But Dr. Hove’s interests aren’t all plant related. She says she’d hoped Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be a topic on the Jeopardy! board, since she’s an avid fan of the cult-classic series.

Growing up in California, she watched Jeopardy! with her father and Vietnamese mother. Over a year ago, she applied to be on the popular quiz show, and after passing multiple screenings and interviews she got her chance. 

Photo by Jack Robert

She made it through the preliminary rounds to the championship. Going into “Final Jeopardy” she had $6,400 and had bet $2,600 in the category of World War II Geography. The answer was: “Body-of-water battles included the Coral Sea, Philippine Sea & this one that allowed Japan to seize Jakarta.” Even though she had crammed for world geography before the competition, she wrote the question: “What is the South China Sea?” The correct answer was “What is the Java Sea?”

Although she didn’t win the $100,000, she had fun, no regrets, and now plans to use her winnings to take her family to Vietnam to explore their heritage.

What life lesson did you learn from being on Jeopardy!?

One big take-home for me is the value of actually practicing what you preach. I often encourage my students, and my own children for that matter, to take calculated risks, put themselves out there, and grow from setbacks. This is so much easier said than done. Jumping on a plane during a pandemic to appear on a nationally televised game show was daunting, but ultimately enriched my life in ways that I didn’t expect.

How did your students react to you being on Jeopardy!?

For the quarter finals, the college hosted a viewing party in the [campus] theater that I’ll always remember. Friends, students, and colleagues came out to cheer me on and made some serious noise at the end of the episode when I won. Students, even ones I had never met, went out of their way to share their support and enthusiasm with me.

If you could have a do-over, what would you do differently?

I spent a lot of time studying geography and history … I’d try to study more of Jeopardy!’s word-based categories, like six-letter verbs.

What advice would you give a hopeful Jeopardy! contestant?

Even if you’re just thinking about being on the show, take the online test now. Don’t overthink it; just do it and have fun. If you get asked to appear on the show, then start practicing with a pretend buzzer, like a clickable ballpoint pen. Buzzing in fast plays a big role in determining how you’ll do on the show.

Who is the smartest person you know?

My husband Scott. In addition to being a ridiculously good chess player who reads a lot, the guy works magic when the time comes to pack a lot of stuff into a moving truck or a car for a family road trip.

What dumb thing do you do just for fun?

I enjoy playing video games like Super Smash Bros. My favorite character is Mewtwo, the genetically modified Pokémon.


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