What Do Spelling Bee Champions Do When They Grow Up?

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June 1 2012 5:14 PM

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What do spelling-bee winners do when they grow up?

Spelling Bee contestant Snigdha Nandipati.
National Spelling Bee winner Snigdha Nandipati will likely have a nice career when she grows up

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Snigdha Nandipati won the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday. The 14-year-old is the fifth consecutive Indian-American winner and wants to become a psychiatrist or a neurosurgeon. How do spelling bee champions fare later in life?

They’re well above average. None among the 88 winners of the Scripps competition are Nobel Prize winners or MacArthur geniuses, but spelling champions do have an impressive record. The last six to graduate from high school have attended college at Harvard, Cornell, MIT, Yale, Tufts, and Duke. They tend to collect graduate degrees and pick prestigious professions like doctor, engineer, or lawyer. If Nandipati becomes a psychiatrist or neurosurgeon, she’ll join a host of her peers who probe the human mind. Nupur Lala, who won the 1999 spelling bee and was featured in the film documentary Spellbound, went on to study cognitive science and language processing. 1978 champion Peg McCarthy is a clinical psychologist, and Irving Belz, who won in 1951, is a psychiatrist.

Several winners have gone on to careers in writing and journalism, perhaps because local newspapers like to sponsor participants and then offer them internships after they win. The best-known spelling-bee journalist was Susan Yoachum, who won the competition in 1969. She was part of the San Jose Mercury News team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, and then covered politics at the San Francisco Chronicle for eight years before dying of breast cancer in 1998.

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Some winners develop an obsession with conquering games of wit. Amanda Goad followed her 1992 spelling bee win with a successful run on Teen Jeopardy! in 1996. Ned Andrews ('94) was the longest-running contestant on the NBC quiz show 1 vs. 100. Pratyush Buddiga, who won in 2002, is currently playing on the international poker circuit. Others hang around the spelling bee for decades. The current director of the competition, Paige Pipkin Kimble, was the 1981 champion. Jacques Bailly ('80) and Blake Giddens ('83) both work for the bee as pronouncers. A couple of winners parleyed their F-I-F-T-E-E-N minutes of fame into writing training books for aspiring champions: A Champion's Guide to Success in Spelling Bees and How to Spell Like a Champ.

Rebecca Sealfon, who famously shouted the spelling of euonym to win the 1997 championship, is now a computer scientist and entrepreneur, with a business that matches professors with students who are interested in their research. (She still has a unique speaking style.) Daniel Greenblatt ('84) does freelance voice-acting in commercials and video games. Gamers who own a copy of Big Game Hunter 2012 can hear Greenblatt pronounce phrases such as “Top of the food chain, baby!” and “Top-notch shooting!”

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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