Amy DeJong and Maya Warren had a truly epic summer, but they can’t tell you about it.
The UW-Madison food science grad students spent the month of June zipping around the globe as part of the cast of the 25th edition of The Amazing Race, the multi-Emmy Award winning CBS television reality show. Along the way, they competed against 10 other two-person teams in various mental and physical challenges, with the goal of beating their rivals to the final destination—and claiming the $1 million prize.
Suspense is a critical element of the show, so DeJong and Warren—like all of their fellow cast members—have to be very tight-lipped, at least for now. But one thing they can say: Their scientific training proved to be an asset.
“A big part of being a scientist is being comfortable in situations with a lot of details and a lot of unknowns, where you have to persevere. If an experiment fails, you have to keep trying,” says DeJong, who studies candy crystallization in the lab of food science professor Rich Hartel. “Those things directly apply to the race. You have to keep going. You can’t give up.”
It was Warren’s idea to try out for the race. She’s an avid fan of the show, and when she learned there would be auditions in Chicago last October, she brought it up in conversation in Hartel’s lab, where she studies the physical properties of ice cream. DeJong, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, was game.
“It sounded like such a unique, fun-sounding opportunity, so I said ‘why not’?” says DeJong.
Right from the start, Warren felt they had a good shot of making it onto the show.
“We weren’t the typical cookie-cutter couple,” says Warren, a native of St. Louis, Missouri. “We would bring something very different to the table.”
Her hunch was right. They were selected, but had to keep the fact largely a secret, only sharing information on a need-to-know basis. When they both took off in late May, most people thought they were heading off for normal, separate summer vacations.
Word got out on May 31, when the 2014 race launched and CBS revealed the identities of the cast members.
Fast-forward four weeks. When DeJong and Warren returned to campus, reentry was a little tough, particularly for Warren.
“I missed the thrill. I didn’t necessarily want to get back into the hustle and bustle of research,” she says. “But now it’s cool, and it was fun to see everybody’s excitement and to feel all of the support. People would stop us in the hallway to say ‘congratulations,’ and ask a bunch of questions that we couldn’t answer.”
Fortunately, it’s almost time to watch their adventure unfold. The season premier of The Amazing Race airs on Friday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. CST, with the finale in early December. DeJong and Warren’s team is named—and can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag—#SweetScientists.
DeJong plans to watch the premier with friends and family in Madison. Warren is hosting a “red carpet event” for around 60 family members at her parents’ home in St. Louis.
The following week, the food science department plans to throw a celebratory pizza party, where faculty, staff and students can (re)watch the premier alongside the new celebrities.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, and I hope it helps inspire other people to do the things they’ve always wanted to do,” says Warren. “The sky isn’t even the limit.”