Meet this year’s University Challenge Winners

Left to right: Brandon Blackwell, Conor McMeel, Richard Brooks, Caleb Rich (team captain), and reserve Jonghyeon Lee.

On Monday 20th April, Imperial College London were victorious over Corpus Christi, Cambridge in the University Challenge final. With a 275-point winning score, it was an impressive finale to finish off an undefeated campaign. Imperial College can now boast 3 titles, a feat which has only been surpassed by the University of Manchester and Magdalen College, Oxford.

The team who brought the title back to South Kensington was made up of Richard Brooks, Conor McMeel, Brandon Blackwell and their captain, Caleb Rich. Although the four members have been on four separate continents this year, the boys have kept in touch regularly.

However, there was a fifth member of the team – their lucky mascot, a glass of aquafaba. For those of us not in the intellectual ballpark of a University Challenge contestant, aquafaba is the liquid from a tin of chickpeas. According to Conor, the boys got talking about aquafaba on the way to the studio for quite a while because one of them didn’t know what it was. A couple of hours later, during their first-round match, there was a question on aquafaba and, to Paxman’s surprise, all four of them jumped for the buzzer. Since then, the team would drain a tin of chickpeas into a glass before each match and one person was nominated to drink from it at the end of every match.

Now that we’ve dealt with the mascot, let’s meet the other four who made up our winning team…

Richard Brooks

Born and raised in Stockton, Richard is completing his fourth year of an integrated master’s in mechanical engineering. He was studying out in Sydney when the pandemic hit, which forced him to come back home. He’s been the Chair of Quiz Society for two years and enjoys writing pub quizzes for Imperial Music Society and the Alumni Day at the Imperial Festival.

Aside from quizzing, do you have any hobbies?

I did a lot of music stuff at Imperial, I was in the choir, big band, and wind band. I didn’t mind the rehearsals, but the main reason I did it was to go to the pub afterwards – I used to go to h-bar two or three times a week!

What’s your go-to drink in h-bar?

It depends what the cocktail of the month is… it could be the cocktail of the month or it could be a pint of Carling cider.

Why did you want to go on University Challenge?

I’d been enjoying it for a few years and sometimes I would get the answers before the people on the screen, so I thought I’d like to have a go at that. The main reason was that I don’t do sport, so this was my opportunity to represent the university.

How did you learn all those facts?

It wasn’t really learning everything, a lot of it was reading about subjects and adding to previous knowledge. When I’m asked a question, it reminds me of the answer, so I can come up with it fairly easily. Whereas, if someone suddenly said, come up with ten quiz questions, I would really struggle, because I’d have to think.

How did you cope with the pressure?

I did get quite nervous, but because it’s a team game, as long as someone else on the team gets it it’s okay. I think it was much nicer doing it as a team, it’s less nerve-wracking because, if you do have a bad game, it takes the attention off you.

Were there any standout questions for you from your time on the show?

In the final I answered one about tea, despite not drinking tea or coffee myself. After answering your first one – mine was naming Stockholm from its map – the rest become more forgettable.

Would you have liked to have a woman on the team?

As Chair of Quiz Society, I was trying really hard to get more girls to come to our try outs for University Challenge. I tried advertising at the Biology and Chemistry departments where the ratio of females to males is more balanced. Unfortunately, the effort didn’t pay off and we had another all-male team.

If you were to do another quiz show, what would you go for?

The Chase or Only Connect. I like how the audience will know a lot of the answers on The Chase and can get involved. I think the reason I like Only Connect is because I get the questions correct so rarely that when I actually do get one right I get really happy.

Will we be seeing you on campus next year?

Yes, I have arranged to go back and do a PhD in the Chemical Engineering department. I’m quite excited to go back really because it was nice getting to try somewhere new, but I did miss Imperial as well.

Conor McMeel

Conor has just returned to his hometown of Dublin from a research trip in Tokyo for his PhD where he was doing some complicated analysis of the algorithms which underpin our lockdown saviour, Netflix. He is a member of both the Imperial Quiz Society and the Quiz League of London.

What are your hobbies outside of quizzing?

I used to do a lot of weightlifting, but I stopped when I moved to England. I had a really tight knit club in Dublin which I might go back to when the gyms reopen again. I’m also really into predictive sports modelling – coming up with betting polls for sports. We did a fantasy baseball draught teaching exercise at my old company and I was bit by the bug.

Why did you want to go on University Challenge?

Because I’ve watched it for so long! When I was at Trinity College in Dublin we begged them to let us on, but they didn’t, so when I came to university in England I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to go on. I think more than other shows it strikes a balance really well by writing about inaccessible academic topics in a way that is fun and interesting.

How did you prepare for the show?

I do a lot of reading anyway and can easily accidentally spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia clicking from article to article and actually enjoy it. What helps is I do a lot of these quizzes which solidifies the knowledge because if you get things wrong in front of your teammates, you obviously don’t want to do that again, so you remember it.

How did you cope with the nerves?

Every couple of minutes I would worry what my face looked like or if I was sitting weirdly. There was nothing I did, I think after you start playing it starts feeling more like a normal university quiz tournament.

Were there any standout questions for you from your time on the show?

There was one really nostalgic question for me which was the most organic of all the buzzes I got. It was about the theme music for some game my parents bought me when I was around six or seven. To get a buzz on that felt very much like Slumdog Millionaire!

Have you had any famous moments?

I had someone recognise me in Japan, it wasn’t even another foreign person, it was a Japanese person, which was really cool. They were like, “There’s this show called University Challenge, do you know it?” So, it’s like worldwide fame!

Brandon Blackwell

Caleb Rich and Brandon Blackwell

Speaking of worldwide fame, Brandon has been inundated with media attention and returned to his home in New York upon finishing his master’s in England. Understandably, he was a little too busy for an interview. University Challenge wasn’t his first quiz experience and certainly won’t be his last – he lost his quiz show virginity aged 14 and has reportedly totted up $468,652.72 in prize money to date.

When he came to England, he had his sights set on Mastermind and would have specialised in the Nobel Peace Prize. He takes his quizzing very seriously and worked incredibly hard to be the outstanding quizzing talent that graced the set of University Challenge.

His media fame has been a mixture of praise for his intelligence and criticism for being so animated. However, as Conor put it, ”There was nothing he did wrong apart from being enthusiastic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A connotation about the show is that we are meant to come on and have three names, answer in Latin and sip our water, and he railed against that so much.”

Brandon’s teammates have nothing but respect for him, not only as a phenomenal quizzer, but a lovely guy and a good friend.

Caleb Rich

The team captain, Caleb Rich, is from Lewisham and co-hosts his local pub quiz which has gone virtual since lockdown. Since finding fame on University Challenge, he’s been asked to write a quiz on quantum optics for Physics World, the magazine of the Institute of Physics. If you’re up for the challenge, then give it a try here.

Do you have any other hobbies outside of quizzing?

Yeah. I like playing the guitar and I’m quite into music. I used to play the bassoon, but I haven’t played in a while. Usually it’s in an orchestra – the solo bassoon doesn’t really work so well.

Why did you want to go on University Challenge in the first place?

I watched it with my dad, and he was always really good, so I didn’t get that many questions right when I was young. Then as I grew older, I got to know more and more stuff, so I was getting more and more questions right.

Were you self-conscious about which outfits to wear?

I was! I had to choose which were my best shirts and I made sure to wear a good one first in case we didn’t get past the first round. My girlfriend did say that, if I reached the final, she would buy me a new shirt and she was true to her word, so I wore that.

Were there any standout questions for you from your time on the show?

There was one I had in the final around postcolonial literature; my mum has a PhD in children’s literature and had told me bits about it in the past. So, I only knew that answer from talking to her and I looked over to her in the audience when I said it.

Did you feel sorry for the other team in the final at all?

I don’t know if there was space enough in my brain at that point to feel sorry for them. I was mostly thinking, ‘The margin is pretty big now and we are actually probably going to win this if we keep going on at this level’, so I felt quite a lot of relief at that point.

Has anything exciting happened to you since winning the show?

I discovered one of the team members from the Courtauld Institute works at the end of my road in the fish and chip shop! So, I bumped into her which was quite strange, and I see her around the area – it’s a small world.

If you were to do another quiz show, what would you go for?

Probably Mastermind, although you don’t win any money, so it’s just another glory one. My sister was saying I should always try to monetize it. Only Connect would be quite fun as well if I could get a few other people to do it with me.

With both Caleb and Richard admitting they would like to try their hand at Only Connect, this may not be the last we see of these quizzing superstars joining forces.

Josie Clarkson is an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College, and a sub-editor of I, Science magazine.

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