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School of Mathematical Sciences

Queen Mary team on University Challenge

Queen Mary's University Challenge team has recently taken on Oxford Brookes University on BBC Two. Alex McGill, Cathy Dominic, Marcus Deal and Ab Uthayakumar, with Martius Tangen as first reserve, make up the Queen Mary team. We spoke to Alex McGill to find out more about his overall experience at University Challenge. Alex is a third-year PhD student working with Dr Arick Shao at the School of Mathematical Sciences. His interests lie in geometric and analytical methods for studying partial differential equations and applications in the field of mathematical general relativity.

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Could you please take us through the process of auditioning to take part in University Challenge?

There was a two-stage trial process held virtually at Queen Mary, which tested both our general knowledge and speed on the buzzer, the results of which were used to build our team. We used the following months to prepare for the next stage of the process which involved more quizzes and interviews with the producers of the show. This was one of the most competitive parts of the whole process, as around 130 teams were whittled down to a final 28 that made the televised part of the competition. We were ecstatic just to have made it that far. We are keen to encourage as many people as possible to take part in Queen Mary’s trials for next year’s competition, which will be advertised in emails from the Students’ Union and held at some point in autumn. They are really light-hearted and low-pressure occasions so you have absolutely nothing to lose by taking part.

What was the studio experience like?

It was fascinating to look behind the scenes. I think everyone involved in making the show is aware of how surreal it is for the contestants and they really went out of their way to put us at ease and make it an enjoyable experience.

Since you and your teammates are all studying different subjects, did you know each other before the show?

We all met each other for the first time (virtually) during the Queen Mary trials. In fact, due to the national restrictions in place at the time, I did not meet some of my teammates in person until the filming of our first-round match, many months later. We all got on really well and our weekly online meetings were a welcome reprieve from the doom and gloom of that period.

Did you bump into the other team after the show?

Unfortunately, restrictions in place at the time meant we could not socialise with the other teams in the usual way. However, we did get to have a brief chat with them after the match - they seemed like a lovely and very sporting bunch. It’s just a shame we couldn’t share a post-match pint and laugh off our blunders together.

How did you prepare for this round? What is the preparation for round two?

We built a list of frequently occurring topics and allocated these to team members according to our pre-existing strengths and interests. That’s not to say every topic fell naturally into someone’s lap; I ended up with the responsibility of brushing up on opera, for example. This was a bit of a challenge, to put it politely. We’d then use all kinds of resources (online flashcards and quizzes were my favourites – Anki and Sporcle are particularly useful) to improve our knowledge in these areas before putting it to the test in our weekly practice sessions, where we’d play along to an episode of the show in a way that was as realistic as possible.

What did this experience mean to you?

Looking back on my experience, the main thing that sticks out is simply the fun and relief it provided during a taxing period. I’ve made a great group of friends who I’m sure will prove to be valuable assets in future pub quizzes.  

What are your plans for the future?

I am approaching the business end of my PhD now, so it is time for me to consider my next steps, and this is currently something I am still working on. Thankfully, maths opens up all kinds of doors, so there is no shortage of possibilities. Quiz-wise, I’d love to take on a new challenge. Pointless is one I’ve had earmarked for some time now.

You can re-watch the episode on iPlayer