Meet James Devine-Stoneman, John’s University Challenge captain & superconducting spintronics PhD
Following St John’s victory over Ulster University on University Challenge last night, we meet team captain James Devine-Stoneman to learn about his background and time on the show so far
Hi James! Firstly, tell us how you’ve found being on University Challenge? Where did your interest in quizzing begin? My parents always put the show on TV when I was growing up, despite neither of them having gone to university. I think the attraction of the show for most people is the sense of satisfaction from answering one of the seemingly arcane questions correctly. I remember as a child laughing at how Paxman saying ‘six-point-six-three times ten to the minus thirty-four’ could result in the answer ‘Planck’ — something which, worryingly, now makes perfect sense to me.
‘We made a huge spreadsheet dividing the entirety of human knowledge among us and I made about 2,000 flashcards on an app’
I’d applied to the team each year since matriculating at St John’s (2012), and made it a couple of times, but missed out on being selected for the televised shows. This year, with a fantastic team emerging from the trials, I knew we had a good chance. John-Clark Levin previously appeared on Jeopardy, so is a seasoned quizzer, and provides American knowledge which is always useful. Rosie McKeown outperformed everyone by far at College trials, with an encyclopedic knowledge of English literature. Matt Hazell probably rivals current supercomputers at quick calculations, which we saw in action in the first episode, leaving Paxman incredulous. Even before getting the phone call to say we’d be on, we were frantically preparing. We made a huge spreadsheet dividing the entirety of human knowledge among us and I made about 2,000 flashcards on an app. We also spent evenings sat around my laptop watching old episodes, trying to pause the video before an on-screen contestant buzzed in.
As for the show itself, the whole process was a lot of fun. We got the studio make-up experience, and I now know the struggles of wearing foundation, which inevitably rubs off on everything! While in make-up, Jeremy Paxman walked in and introduced himself in his wry manner. Then it’s to the green room, where the production team settle you in. There, you can see a live feed from the studio, showing four empty chairs, behind four surnames and ‘St John’s — Cambridge’. Soon enough you’re waiting in the wings with the opposing team, and Roger Tilling (whose frantic voice calls your name when you buzz) introduces you for the walk-on to take your place. After the studio team are happy and you’ve had a little warm-up, the famous music plays and the game begins. It’s filmed almost in one take — bar the occasional protest or game-play irregularity. Then it’s back to the hotel on the Salford Quays to relax — or swot up on some quiz facts!
‘My favourite team was Ulster — if any team knew how to have a good time, it was them, despite (or perhaps because of) their average age of 50'
Was it a nerve-wracking experience? (Especially being captain…) Once you’re behind the desk and playing, it all feels quite cosy; if you’ve been to lots of quiz practices like me, it feels rather natural — albeit with Paxman, an audience and studio lights! I was lucky enough in the first match against St Andrews to buzz early and get the first starter of the match, which really put me in the right place psychologically for the rest of that game. There were definitely times when I got flustered, though.
The role of captain is that of a diplomat and decision-maker. On the bonuses, you confer and it’s up to you to decide whose answer to put forward if there’s a disagreement. The worst thing you can do here is to overrule a correct suggestion from a teammate — so usually I deferred!
How was the camaraderie with the other teams? Having been on the university quizzing scene a while, I’d met quite a few members of the other teams before at tournaments. As for those I didn’t know, we always had good fun chatting with them in the green room or in the hotel. We’ve kept our new friendships going over social media, wishing each other luck for upcoming matches. My favourite team was Ulster — if any team knew how to have a good time, it was them, despite (or perhaps because of) their average age of 50.
‘I spend most days in the lab, depositing thin metallic films, using cleanroom microfabrication techniques and sculpting devices at the nanoscale with a focused ion beam’
And what are you working on currently, in your studies and extracurricular-wise? I introduce myself on the show as studying ‘superconducting spintronics’, to the general bemusement of the TV audience. My PhD supervisor is Dr Jason Robinson (a Fellow at St John’s) and we aim to create novel electronic devices for future energy-efficient computing applications. By using the quantum mechanical property of spin for logic and memory operations, we can go over and above the present charge-based technology. Furthermore, we extend this idea into the superconducting state, with zero electrical resistance opening the way to greatly enhanced device efficiencies and completely novel behaviours. Practically, I spend most days in the lab, depositing thin metallic films, using cleanroom microfabrication techniques and sculpting devices at the nanoscale with a focused ion beam.
Outside of that, I’m immensely enjoying holding University Challenge screenings in College and enjoying a minor degree of fame on social media. I continue to participate in some quiz tournaments in Cambridge, as well as going with my lab group weekly to our favourite pub quiz. I’m immersed in College life, giving undergraduate supervisions and taking part in the lively SBR community. I’ve also had the chance to visit my high school, Dormers Wells in Ealing, and give my advice to the students there as well as meeting my teachers who helped me on my path to St John’s.
We’ve received lots of messages of congratulations from alumni on your team’s performance on University Challenge to date. We’d like to extend this message, too, and thanks for talking with us! It’s great to hear such excitement from the Johnian alumni community about University Challenge, and I’m thrilled that we’ve managed to represent the College in such a public way. I would like to thank all those who have watched the show and sent their messages of support, it really means a lot. I hope we continue to be a positive advertisement for the College on the next episode, but until then, it’s goodbye from me — goodbye!