Science Rules on Big Brother 14

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Can studying science help win a TV reality show competition?  Just ask Ian Terry.  We did. 

Ian Terry spent last summer being watched by millions on TV; that was enough to put him on our list of notable scientists even though he’s not quite finished with school.

Big Brother, a worldwide phenomenon, and a staple of summer television on CBS for more than a decade, will premiere June 26, its 15th season.  So, now is a good time to catch up with Ian Terry, last year’s surprise winner of the show.  

Ian turned out to be a great competitor (after a rough start), and it was fun to watch him out-maneuver and outsmart his fellow “house guests” – but what really makes Ian a standout , from our perspective, is that he’ll soon be graduating from college with a degree in chemical engineering. Marking him one as of the few scientists or engineers to venture anywhere close to a reality TV show, much less actually end up the victor.   Hopefully, his success will inspire other scientists and engineers to take a break from their labs to venture into the surreal world of reality television.  Great advancements or discoveries are unlikely to take place with a dozen cameras tracking your every move, but showing TV viewers that you’re just as cool as anyone else in the game has its benefits.  

 Ian says he not yet done with being on TV.  He’d love to compete on The Amazing Race.  But he needs a “good partner.”  A team with a scientist or engineer would make for some great television.  Any takers?  

The Exchange: Where are you in school these days?  Have you graduated?  What comes next for you?
Ian Terry: I’m currently finishing up my undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Tulane University. I plan on graduating within the next year. Hopefully I’ll go to graduate school or start working in the industry after graduating.

How did you get interested in science?  When did you know that you wanted to study chemical engineering?
I got interested in science when I was about six years old. I was always fascinated with astronomy as a kid. I decided to study chemical engineering when I was in high school, because I liked chemistry and heard the job market for chemical engineering was good.

Tell us about your early relationship with Big Brother, before you were selected to be on the show.   You were an avid fan.  What made this particular show so intriguing for you?
I’d been watching the show since I was ten years old and always found the strategy behind it fascinating. I’m a huge fan of game shows in general, but Big Brother and Survivor had the strategic aspects that made them very interesting games to watch.

Did you ever consider trying out for other reality TV competitions — Survivor – or The Amazing Race — for example?
I’d tried out for Survivor in June 2011, because the age minimum for Survivor was lower than that for Big Brother.  I didn’t get called back. I guess Survivor’s loss was Big Brother’s gain.

Were you surprised to be selected?  Or, did you think you had it in the bag?
It was definitely a huge shock to be selected. As I made it further and further through the casting process I was amazed at how far I was getting. I never expected to get on the show and was in disbelief once I got selected.

How would you encourage other science and/or engineering students to try out for reality shows?  What advice would you give them?
It’s definitely a huge advantage being a scientist or engineer and trying out for a reality show. As one might expect, being a scientist or engineer that’s interested in going on a show like that is much more rare as some other types of applicants. We sort of “stand out from the crowd”, if you catch my drift.

Do you think your education played a role in your winning Big Brother?
I think that having a good problem-solving background like a chemical engineering education provides definitely helped me win the show.

Early on in the show, you claimed to have a great memory.  You weren’t wrong.  How much of an advantage did your memory give you in succeeding on the show?
Having a photographic memory was clearly my biggest asset while on the show. Towards the end, almost all of the competitions were based on information regarding events that took place throughout the season. Being able to remember the details was very helpful.

Big Brother is all about relationships with the other “house guests.”  How important was it to get the other players to like you, or at least not want to vote you off the program?  Was it all about strategy, or was it interpersonal skills?  What did you learn about getting along with others that you can apply in your real life?
Being liked by the other houseguests is only important during the first few weeks of the game. It’s really based on strategy otherwise. I did learn some interpersonal skills to help me get along with a wider variety of people than I typically would in everyday life. 

At one point in the show, you went on a “date” with another house guest.  During the date, you were shown explaining to her the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry.  Do you think scientists appearing on reality shows like Big Brother and other TV shows help improve public understanding and appreciation of science?  And scientists?
I think scientists being on reality shows can help dispel stereotypes that scientists are boring people that aren’t extroverted at all.

What have you done with the money you won?
A large part of the prize money is for paying off my schooling. I’ve set aside some of the money for investments as well. I haven’t really spent much of the money on extravagant things.

Would you do another reality show?
I would definitely be interested in playing Big Brother again. I’d also do The Amazing Race if I could find a good partner for it.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.