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Yale-trained Chemist Wins Big on JEOPARDY!

June 11, 2013

Post-doctoral fellow Keith Whitener (PhD 2010, Chemistry), won $100,000 in the JEOPARDY! Tournament of Champions in February and more than $147,000 during the regular season, making him one of the top fifteen winners ever to compete on the show.

In his day job at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., Whitener studies the chemistry of surfaces, specifically graphene, a substance composed of pure carbon, with atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern in a sheet only one-atom thick. Graphene is the basic structural element of several forms of carbon, including graphite, charcoal, carbon nanotubes, and fullerenes. His research has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and The Journal of Physical Chemistry.

During his years at Yale, Whitener sometimes competed in trivia night at Anna Liffey’s, the Irish pub on Whitney Avenue, but admits that “the questions were surprisingly hard, and I never did very well.” When playing JEOPARDY!, he found science to be the easiest category and “a good way to score a lot of points quickly.” The most challenging categories for him were the ones that dealt with topics from 1960 to 1980. “I’m too young to remember the events from this period directly, but I’m too old for this period to have been taught in history class. Whatever knowledge I have is simply by virtue of having picked it up randomly along the way.”

Whitener earned his BS in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, Boulder, before joining the NRL. His Yale adviser was R. James Cross, and his research focused on Fullerene chemistry and physics. Whitener was recently married to his Yale classmate, Rachel Dexter (PhD 2010, Chemistry), a biologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Her adviser was Alanna Schepartz. They expect to use the game-show winnings to help pay for their first house.