New Kensington psychology alumna appears on Jeopardy

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. -- The Final Jeopardy answer is “May 1.” The correct question is “When did former Penn State New Kensington student Michelle Flaherty appear on Jeopardy?”

Unfortunately, "Dates that New Kensington alumna appear on TV" was not a category, but Flaherty, who earned a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology from the campus, knew enough trivia to finish runner-up to Julia Collins, the longest-running female champion in the show’s history. After missing the game-ending answer, “Other than Q, these two letters appear the least in the names of states,” by writing Z and X instead of Z and J, she pocketed $2,000 in winnings.

“I made a good showing,” said Flaherty, a native of Allegheny Township. “I got a bunch of questions right and didn’t get many questions wrong.”

In a bit of serendipity, one of the categories was "Psychology." Flaherty graduated with high distinction in 2011. Although she didn’t always succeed in the buzzer battle, she knew many of the answers. Flaherty shared her glory with her former psychology professors, Rob Bridges and Rick Harnish, in a May 1 email.

“One of the questions that I got on the show was a psychology question and, spoiler alert, I got it correct,” Flaherty wrote. “As you can see, all your psychology efforts paid off.”

Bridges and Harnish, associate professors of psychology, were Flaherty’s advisers and mentors. Both teach lower- and upper-level courses.

“Michelle was the type of student who, when you asked a question in class, could always count on for a quick and correct response,” said Harnish, who spent 13 years in private industry before joining the campus faculty in 2003. “It doesn’t surprise me that she competed so well."

"Michelle was a delight to have in class,” said Bridges, the 2005 recipient of the Penn State Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching. “Her leadership in my student-led seminar class suggested to me that she had great things in her future."

Her yearlong cross-country trek to the land of Alex Trebek started with an online test, moved to an audition in Niagara Falls, and concluded on a stage in Culver City, California, where the show was taped in February. Believing that study sessions would have a negative impact on her performance, she did no special preparation for the show.

“I always had an aptitude for trivia,” Flaherty said. “For some reason, I just retain things you never really need to know.”

For the “As Fate Will Have It” category, Flaherty’s appearance on television was analogous to her senior research paper, “The Effect of Background Television on Performance.” The paper detailed the results of an experiment on students studying while watching television.

The hypothesis was that students who were exposed to background television during a task would have a lower performance rate and would take longer to accomplish the task than those who were not exposed. Results, however, indicated no significant difference in performance rate between the groups.

There is no empirical data on final grades for the New Kensington campus students who were studying for final exams while watching Flaherty on Jeopardy.

“I remember Michelle’s project very well because of the topic matter and her null results,” said Harnish, who was the adviser for 11 undergraduate research projects this semester. “I’m still trying to convince students that background noise, be it music or conversation, is distracting and that performance will suffer.”

For the Valley News Dispatch story on Flaherty’s Jeopardy appearance, visit


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Last Updated May 14, 2014