Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'Jeopardy' champ Japinga gaining quantitative skills to improve policy work

Alex Trebek and Mark Japinga. Credit Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Alex Trebek and Mark Japinga. Credit Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

Japinga competes in 'Jeopardy!'

Outside the world of public policy, Mark Japinga has made a name for himself as a winner on the television game show "Jeopardy!" making five appearances in 2013 before he lost on a sports question. The show brought him back this fall for a Tournament of Champions that will air Friday, November 14. He describes the experience below:

People ask a lot if appearing on Jeopardy has been a lifelong goal, to which I usually say "sort of." I'm not an obsessive viewer by any means, but I love game shows, I've always enjoyed Jeopardy and have always been good enough at trivia to think that I had a shot at getting on the show. Plus Jeopardy is well suited for how my brain is wired. I can recall information really quickly, usually stay calm under pressure and am interested in a wide range of subjects. I try to remind people in more self-deprecating moments, though, that my knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep. (For instance, I wrote down all of the books I had answered questions about correctly during my first run and realized I hadn't read at least half of them.)

This has been a pretty long process. For prospective contestants, Jeopardy offers an online test every year in January, which I took in 2012. 50 questions, 15 seconds per question to type in your answer. I passed (though Jeopardy does not reveal scores) and was invited to an in-person audition in Baltimore in December 2012. There, I took another test (same format), played a mock game, talked about myself. The producers working at the audition say that they'll either call you in the next 18 months or they won't. I got called in February 2013, taped my shows in March and April, and then those aired in July 2013. Jeopardy called me in August 2014 to invite me to the Tournament of Champions, and then we taped the two-week tournament over two days September 30 and October 1.

The taping process is a little weird. There are 15 people playing three at a time in the quarterfinals. The winners go through to the next round, as do the four highest scorers among non-winners, so you can't know the other scores before you play. Meaning, as a Friday competitor, I sat in the green room all day, watched movies, felt nervous, and hours later, showed up on stage.

But it's a really fun experience. I only see Alex Trebek when he's on stage, so most of the time, I'm interacting with the producers, who are spectacular, and the rest of the contestants, who are also fantastic people. I get that reassuring sense of "finding my people" when I'm in a room with a bunch of Jeopardy champions whose brains all work in the same strange ways that mine does.

Mark Japinga hopes to find a behind-the-scenes balance between politics and policy, a happy medium that a Master of Public Affairs degree from the La Follette School will help him achieve.

"So much of policy work now is data-driven to the point where if you don't know how to compile data, communicate your findings and effectively display your results, people who do will be way ahead of you," the first-year student says. "A master's degree will help me develop the quantitative skills I have not developed in the real world and focus more on my policy area of interest."

After graduating from Grinnell College in 2009, Japinga got a firsthand look at policymaking as a research assistant in the office of a Texas state senator, helping to prepare for the 2011 legislative session by fact-checking policy proposals, and researching and writing policy memos.

Japinga then worked as a bill analyst for the Texas Legislative Council before heading to Washington, D.C., to join Stateside Associates as a legislative associate. "I tracked and researched health-care legislation in state legislatures across the country," he says. "I hate the term 'view from 30,000 feet,' but that's really what it was, a chance to see the variety of health policy that state legislatures debate every year and all the advocacy, horse-trading and sausage-making that comes with it. It confirmed to me that state legislatures have a tremendous ability to influence policymaking, despite far fewer people paying attention, and that this world was more interesting to me than a lot of D.C. politics."

Having become intrigued with health-care reform while he was in Texas, Japinga plans to focus his graduate studies on how state government create, pass and implement health-care legislation. "I'm interested in the Affordable Care Act generally and the way states can regulate the health insurance and health-care delivery markets," he says.

The possibility of working in the Wisconsin Legislature, the La Follette School's focus on social policy, and the offer of a fellowship and a scholarship all prompted Japinga to choose the La Follette School. "I also wanted to get out of D.C. for a couple years and move to a new city, and it's fun to be back in the Midwest again — I'm originally from Michigan," he says.

"The funding was absolutely key in getting me to come here," he adds. "If you had asked me a year ago, I don't think I would have predicted that I'd end up at La Follette, but it was the first school to admit me and the first school to offer me funding. That made me look a lot harder at the program and convinced me to come out for Visit Day, and suddenly, a week later, I'm signing papers confirming that I'm moving to Madison."

Japinga finds parallel benefits between Grinnell and the La Follette School's small size. "It's great to have the kind of access to professors that you do with smaller class sizes, but I think seeing everyone in your program consistently is just as important," he says. "There's a 'We're all in this together' feel to smaller schools that I think motivates students both socially and academically, and helps you fight through the less fun weeks."

Like many of his classmates, Japinga values public service. "Public service is important and essential to a functioning society," he says, noting he'd like to work for a state legislature or agency, perhaps in health care policy, after he graduates. "In health care especially, it's easy to see why we need a government that's responsive and effective in tackling issues in the market. People don't really want to get bogged down in the intricacies of government; they just want it to work for them. It's up to us to make sure we're delivering quality services in a way that people feel is effective. I want to be able to carry that responsibility, to help make people's lives better, and work with people in the industry and in politics to make the system work best for everyone."