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In conversation with Fatima Sheriff, University Challenge winner

29th Apr 2022
In conversation with Fatima Sheriff, University Challenge winner

(Photo courtesy of Imperial College)

Fatima Sheriff, a Master’s student from Imperial College, won the 51st University Challenge TV show along with her teammates, Max Zeng, Michael Mays, and Gilbert Jackson, earlier this month. In doing so, she made history, becoming the first Muslim woman to make the finals. The victory on April 4 also marks Imperial College’s fourth win on the show. After wins in 1996, 2001, and 2020, Imperial now ranks with Magdalen College, Oxford, and the University of Manchester as the joint-most successful teams in the quiz tournament’s history—each holding four crowns.
Hailing from Hitchin in Hertfordshire, Fatima is studying for an M.Sc. in Science Communication. In addition to her academic skills, Fatima also participates in non-academic activities, which include her work as a freelance film critic. Her specialist subjects are literature, feminism, human anatomy, and neuroscience, and she is the President of the Quiz Society.
To reach this year’s finals, the Imperial College team beat Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in the semi-finals and overcame other teams, including the University of Exeter and St John’s College, Cambridge.
Fatima, who was the only female member of the team, spoke to The Muslim News about winning one of the oldest (1962) and most prestigious TV quiz shows in the UK. She also shed light on their preparations and the challenges faced by female quiz show contestants and the post-win feedback.

How did you feel winning University Challenge, and how did you celebrate?

Utterly elated, it is one of the few TV shows I watched weekly, so to join such an incredible community and win the show was something that my teenage self only dreamt of. If I’d seen a Muslim woman win the show growing up, I would have wept for joy, and I’m so honoured to be that representation for whoever follows suit.
We had an unceremonious but cheerful dinner in Salford, with dessert from Sainsbury’s, and since then we have had much better pizza and the company of dear friends for our lecture theatre watch-along for the actual final. Such is our dedication to quizzing that I, Michael Mays, and reserve Felix boarded a 6 a.m. flight the morning after the final aired to attend a tournament in the United States.

What was the reaction of your family and friends on finding out that you were participating and later winning one of the most, if not the most, difficult quiz shows on TV?

It is a baffling fun fact to tell people, so there isn’t a common reaction, but friends and family who knew me well weren’t as surprised as I was when I got on the team. I grew up watching quiz shows with my mother after school, so I’ve always loved trivia and had a particularly fast recall. My parents have been immensely patient and supportive with me quizzing at all hours, and I work in a care home, which is like having two dozen extra grandparents rooting for you, a huge confidence boost.

How did you feel that you were the only female contestant on your team? Do you not think that there needs to be more female representation in the quiz?

Alas, it is particularly difficult to find women at Imperial (get in touch if you are interested in quizzing!) so a quarter female is representative of the student population, but we should always be working for more. I do think the tide is turning, and certainly, in the upcoming series of the show, I see the landscape improving. As people like me succeed on the show and the questions reflect that by asking about more diverse topics, then it becomes a more welcoming place for minorities to succeed.

How did you prepare for the quiz?

Personally, a lot of prize-winning flashcards, trivia podcasts, and playing every format of quiz I could. We watched old UC episodes, entered tournaments together, and went on museum trips.
We’d also chatter constantly on Zoom or WhatsApp about what we’d learned, and I found joking around and opinionated discussion the best way to consolidate new information. This included our reserve, Felix, and our coach, Michael Kohn (series 50 captain), who are both incredible quizzers and excellent friends.

Were you nervous? Given that it was your first time on University Challenge?

I mean, for every player, it is the first time. Once you’ve appeared on the show, you can’t reapply, so everyone has the same experience. But as you win more matches, the filming process certainly gets easier and a little less daunting.

Did serving as President of Imperial College’s Quiz Society help you in the competition?

So, I only became President after we’d filmed up to the first quarterfinal, but in September, I organised Imperial’s gruelling written test and buzzer rounds to select the next team.
The process of putting those together with my team was very useful. Question writing is a way to reverse engineer the quizzing process – thinking about what would be interesting to ask about, means your spirals on Wikipedia become that little bit more focused.

The finale was against the University of Reading, who you defeated in Episode 30. In the past, the defeated team won as they were driven by revenge. Did that fact spur your team to prepare more?

There was only a two-day gap between that quarter-final against Reading and the final, so I wouldn’t say we upped the ante majorly. In fact, after that Episode 30 recording, we went to see [the movie] Dune to clear our heads. Otherwise, we knew our competition better, and they definitely got faster, so we had to play our best, but otherwise, knowing our opponents made the atmosphere in the green room and on set a little more relaxing and comfortable. Reading are a lovely bunch.

Were you fasting during the final and does it make any difference to your concentration during the quiz?

So yes, the second round and first quarter-finals were in Ramadan, but because I had to travel up to BBC Media City in Salford for filming, I didn’t have to fast. I have to say that I don’t recommend buzzer quizzing when fasting. My reflexes and thought processes are noticeably slower.

What advice would you give to aspiring quiz contestants?

Start with what you love and work outwards: I knew film, literature, and human biology going in, and I had so much fun expanding into learning about poetry, paintings, photography, and women’s history for the show. That may sound daunting, but the easiest way to work out your specialisms or what kind of format you excel at is just to quiz-play along with The Chase, Mastermind, University Challenge, and Only Connect and see what you’re good at. If you’re at university, find or start a quiz society and see if you can get involved in UK Quizbowl. If not, the Online Quiz League runs some great Zoom tournaments to get you started.

What is your next challenge?

Completing my Master’s! I joke that I majored in “quiz” and minored in science communication, and now I have a practical module in documentary to complete and an intriguing dissertation on comedy podcasts to write. After that, I plan on going for Only Connect with some familiar UC faces one day.

Anything you would like to add?

I think quizzing is a good microcosm for life: you have to put your faith in God and trust your instincts. It’s been a year and a half, and I still second-guess my abilities when, somehow, I do know the answers. And as with life, it’s best to be there to learn, have fun, and make friends, not to win. Cheerfully losing and making plenty of mistakes is how you work your way up to being pleasantly surprised by victory among the best people.

Interview by Ahmed J Versi

One Response to “In conversation with Fatima Sheriff, University Challenge winner”

Noori HusainMay 10, 2022

Amazing story! Well done to Fatima for all her efforts and success mashAllah!


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