Interview with Moogega Cooper

Moogega (무지개) Cooper was a top competitor on season one of TBS’s reality competition show, King of the Nerds. It premiered on TBS in January 2013 and the season just ended in early March 2013.

The King of the Nerds premise: “The series will follow 11 fierce competitors from across the nerd spectrum as they set out to win $100,000 and be crowned the greatest nerd of them all.

Although she did not win the competition, Moogega did place 5th overall and gained a considerable fan following from her involvement on King of the Nerds.

Her “day job” is as a Planetary Protection Engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA field center. Although the job title may sound a little nerdy, it is quite an interesting and important job in relation to space research and exploration.

We were able to cover some of Moogega’s personal background, her professional career and, of course, discuss her King of the Nerds experience and are pleased to present this interview.

Please note that comments/questions are in BOLD.

Background: The Basics on Moogega

Where and when were you born, raised and currently reside?
I was born in 1985 in Southern New Jersey. I was raised there until I was 10 years old. We then all moved to Virginia. Once I finished graduate school in Philadelphia I moved to southern California for my job. I won’t leave southern California at all because I love it here!

How did your parents meet?
They met in Korea. My dad would go there several times to just hang out. He used to be in the military and would go back and forth. He met my mom through mutual friends. I kind of want to get a shirt made that says “Made in Korea” as I was definitely conceived there. They had a small ceremony in Korea and he then brought her back to the United States where they were married in the US.

Do you have any siblings?
Yes, I have a ton of siblings but my younger sister and I come from the same mom. See, my dad was really old and was born in 1925, fought in World War II and got married, divorced, married, divorced. He had on average two kids per marriage. My sister lives in Virginia right now.

When I was about seven, my parents divorced and I stayed with my dad. When I was growing up I got a lot of the Korean culture but I didn’t really learn the Korean language because my mom was struggling to learn English. The interesting dynamic in a first generation type home, such a ‘straight from Korea’ home, is that a lot of times the children learn Korean or they don’t because the parents are so focused on learning English themselves.

Can you speak Korean?
I only know a few words. I’m learning now and trying to make my mom proud.

What is your favorite Korean food?
Definitely kalbi (갈비) and rice.

Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans or people of mixed heritage?
What was very interesting was that because we were around a lot of military people, there were a lot of mixed heritage people. No one that was mixed exactly like me but I was used to growing up with a rainbow of people.

Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
A lot of people when they look at me and when I reveal to them that I’m half Korean, they say that they don’t see it at all and think that I’m black. I get a lot of people that say that and they try to impose their own classification of my identity and I embrace both sides.

Have you been to Korea? If so, when was the last time?
I’ve been there twice and the last time I went there was last year. I went there to visit my aunts for the first time. Because, when my parents divorced and I lived with my father, my father told us that she’s dead to you and I didn’t even know that my mom was still alive by the way my father talked about her. It wasn’t until last year in February that I reunited with my mom and we found each other again. That’s why I’m trying to learn the language again and to be the best daughter I can because we have a lot of lost time to make up on.

So, when I went to Korea the second time (the last time) I actually met my mom’s family. My mom didn’t go with me but it went well. My mom lives in New Jersey.

Has your Korean side of your family been accepting of you?
They were very accepting of me and I was surprised. Just knowing the history of the Korean War and a lot of people of mixed heritage, especially half Black and half Korean, were the products of GI soldiers. They would go there and sometimes rape the women and there would be these children who wouldn’t be from a good place. So, I was kind of worried but once I got there I was so accepted and I was just part of the family. I was the daughter of their sister or their cousin. I was accepted 100%.

Do you plan on going to Korea again soon?
For sure! My mom usually goes in the winter time and I didn’t get to go with her this last time she went but hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be able to go together.

It is very cool that you have a Korean first name, Moogega (무지개 pronounced: moo-jee-gae). How hard has it been for non-Koreans to pronounce your name?
It’s been a game for me my whole life. I wonder how this person can pronounce my name differently and if I’ve ever heard this pronunciation. I’ve heard “moo-jae-gah”, “moo-jee-gah”, “moo-shee-gae” and all kinds of things. It’s not spelled in a way where it’s supposed to be phonetic. My parents kind of tried but I just have to explain what it means. It’s interesting because a lot of people look at my outer appearance and then they say, “Oh, she has a ghetto first name” and I’m like it is not ghetto! It is so weird how these prejudices play in to how they interpret your name.

Did you enjoy having a Korean name when you were young? Did you ever think of changing it?
When I was younger, everyone in my class knew of me so I didn’t have to re-introduce myself so once they knew my name there was no problem. I never thought “why did they give me a weird first name?” My younger sister’s name is Diana and her middle name is Joo-young. She got the Korean middle name. I embraced my name and especially when I was disconnected from my mom I knew that my mom had named me and it helped me to hold on to her.

What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
They just think I’m African American. Other mixed Koreans or full Koreans sometimes can pick it out.

Planetary Protection Engineer/’King of the Nerds’

For those that don’t know, could you please tell us what a ‘Planetary Protection Engineer’ does?
A ‘Planetary Protection Engineer’ is a mechanical engineer that knows about microbiology. We’re concerned with forward contamination and reverse contamination. Forward contamination is when we go to other solar bodies, such as Mars. When we go there and search for life, or not even for search for life but we want to prevent the contamination of that body by terrestrial microorganisms. Imagine us going there and we bring some sort of bacteria and it goes there, lives and survives and we completely contaminate it. It’s not ethically a good thing. We do everything we can through developing technologies through having requirements for cleanliness so that we can prevent that.

It is the same thing with reverse contamination when we bring samples back. We need to prevent that Andromeda strain type of situation.

So, do you work hands on with items?
We’ve had a couple meteor, comet and lunar samples. Those are all curated at Johnson Space Center. If we were to have a Mars sample return mission, which is what I’m working on with technology development and doing experiments, so that we can understand what kind of contamination could be spread through the container that we use, how will the actual sample survive. So we take core samples, rock samples, and add biological signatures in there and then we look and accelerate the aging and see what happens to the sample. We put the foundation down so that whoever is in charge of handling it. We have to work with the military and scientists and everyone who wants a piece of it. We may not necessarily be the first to handle samples but we make the the regulations and set the framework for accepting those samples.

How long have you been working at NASA?
I work for JPL, Jet Propulsion Lab, which is one of the NASA centers. JPL is special in that it is FFRDC, Federally Funded Research and Development Center. So we are counted as a NASA center and managed by Caltech. I’ve been working here since 2010.

Has your current career path always been something you have been interested in?
Sort of. When I was in middle school I used to watch a lot of Carl Sagan videos, the Cosmos, and read Stephen Hawking’s books. At first I started out wanting to be an astrophysicist. My motivation was understanding the universe. It is kind of a similar thing of understanding the universe, how it works, how biological our paths are from one body to another. A lot of people hypothesize that the Earth was even populated by a theory called panspermia, which was bacteria hiding in a rock that was from one body in space that landed on Earth and populated the Earth. There are all kinds of theories. So understanding the way everything behaves around us is still what I’m doing and still what I wanted to do but just not under the title of astrophysicist.

How supportive have your parents/family been in your career?
They’ve been extremely supportive. I worked hard and finished high school early. Once I had that goal, I doubled up on classes. During the summer when kids would play I would be taking extra math courses. During the school year, I would double up on science classes. I skipped my senior year of high school so I could start college early. They were very supportive of that and drove me back and forth to college when I was too young.

What are your future career goals? What do you see yourself doing in the near future (such as within next five years or so)?
I definitely envision myself doing the same thing in addition to having grants in my own name. Right now, I’ve worked under projects as a research scientist but I would like to lead investigations and future technology development for planetary protection. I have a few ideas and things I’m conjuring up that I’m trying to get a grant for. I hope that in five years that I’ll have my own lab setup and my own niche carved out in planetary protection.

King of the Nerds

How did the opportunity happen?
I was fortunate enough to participate in a competition through NASA headquarters and the astrobiology group. The premise was “the search for the next Carl Sagan.” I did this competition and I was in the front of the line at NASA headquarters and the casting group approached headquarters and were looking for someone from a set age range and let them know what they were looking for. I was one of the recommendations. The casting people came to me and told me that I was recommended and asked if I could send them a video so that they could see what I looked like on screen. It was being at the right place at the right time.

What did your parents/family think of your participation on the show?
My mom was a little worried. She wondered what they were going to do to me and how long I would be gone and couldn’t talk to me.

How was the experience? What did you enjoy about the competition?
I loved it! I took a leave without pay from work and the pay that I missed out on I would pay that much and more to be part of this experience. It was priceless. I’m really thankful to be part of such an opportunity and I can’t imagine any other situation like this that I would ever be in. It was great. It was stressful and difficult. I went through a roller coaster of emotions but I saw parts of myself that I didn’t know. I saw how I behave when I’m really stressed out. I mean, I’ve been through stressful situations but having an accelerated stressful environment it was interesting to see that part of me. I was the same but I just wanted to stay away from drama and try to fix it whether it be eliminating someone else or putting myself up for elimination.

What was your favorite highlight from your time on the show?
The highlight was doing the nerd anthem competition. It was a ton of fun just writing lyrics about what makes you a nerd and relate that with other people. I know people who are going through the same situation so writing lyrics for an anthem that other people can relate to and sing along with, I think was fun and putting it to music, making a dance and performing it was one of my favorite challenges and highlights from the show.

Also, just all the down time. It was great because we got to talk and get to know each other.

Did the contestants get along?
For the most part, we all got along. There was some tension just because there were different teams.

Have you kept in touch with any of the other competitors?
We definitely keep in touch especially through Facebook. We have a little group that we discuss internal things there. And, all the Los Angeles people try to hang out as much as possible. I know that Joshua and Ivan are BFFs, so they hang out a lot. I’ve seen them a couple of times since the show has aired.

You finished a respectable 5th on the show. Had you set any goals for yourself prior to participating in King of the Nerds and do you feel you accomplished them?
My main goal was to win but not to sacrifice any of my values in order to do that. Meaning, don’t be crude or mean because there was a lot of things that I saw where I thought I would never do no matter how much money. I wouldn’t do certain things. I definitely wanted to win but life would not have been negatively impacted if I lost so I didn’t have any motivation to play dirty. I wanted to play a clean game, be nice and have a fun experience. I am not implying that others played dirty. Those were my pre-set goals.

In your opinion, do you think that the winner (Celeste) was the true “King of the Nerds?”
Well… I definitely think she played a great game and obviously my vote was for Genevieve but I’m still happy for her. Even though I voted against Celeste I’m happy with her because she definitely played the game well and was very sweet. She has a great application for the $100,000. If I were to pick one person based on what they would use the money for, I think Danielle would be a great candidate because she actually had her father going through therapy and radiation. She would be an amazing person who would actually need the money. With Celeste, since she is going back to school, she is using the money for a great reason. She is going through her studies and the money couldn’t have gone to a better application – to better yourself, get an education and do what you dream of doing. I already have that and want that for other people.

If you had won, what would you have done with the prize money?
I definitely would have saved most of it. My mom says, “Earn $5, Save $6.” She has that really hard working Korean-American spirit and I’ve seen that a lot with people from Korea who have came here. They work so hard. My mom can speak in English but it is still very broken and for her she has her own businesses, properties and works her butt off. I try to listen to that advice as much as possible. So, I would have saved most of it. The rest I would have given some to my sister, who is going to school, to my little brother and some gifts to family. And, I would have definitely travel. So, travel, family and savings.

Since it was the inaugural season for King of the Nerds, how was the viewer feedback?
I’m happy because most of the feedback for me was that I was so nice. I didn’t want to be mean to anyone and wanted to be myself on the show. Even as embarrassing as it was with the drunk moment, I’m a happy drunk.

I liked the feedback and heard that I “played the game well,” “I would have done the same things,” and that “you were nice.” I was glad to hear that and it came out well with the editing and all.

So you were happy with the final product that was aired?
Yes, for the most part. I didn’t know what they would include and what they wouldn’t include but they definitely got in all of the drunk moments!

Do you have any plans to expand on the experience into any other realms of entertainment?
I’m not sure that I would do a reality show again. It depends on what the premise is. With this show, I definitely knew that it was going to be a positive thing. But, if I was invited to do some VH1 reality show, then that would not be good. I would like to work on science based shows either in front of or behind the cameras. I’m definitely open to those opportunities.


What is your current relationship status? Have you ever had any ethnic dating preferences?
I’m dating right now and in a wonderful relationship. I’m pretty open and that is one of the things I’ve seen with other people whom I’ve talked to who are also of mixed heritage. It’s weird because you are more open to anything and everything really because you have an open mind.

Do you have any hobbies or interests that you do to relax?
I like playing the guitar. I like to run and I am training for a triathlon. I actually did not how to swim or ride a bike this time last year. I did my first triathlon last year and by July, hopefully, I’ll be trained enough for a Half Ironman. We’ll see. I like the athletic stuff, I’m getting into that now that I’m not a band geek anymore.

Anybody you respect/look up to?
I definitely look up to my mom now that we have reunited. I see the drive she has and it is amazing. The positivity, hope and optimism she has, I see where I get a lot of that from. Being separated from her for so long and knowing that one day we would be reunited, it is amazing.

I also look up to Carl Sagan, of course.

Do you like soju?
I love soju! The first time I went to Korea was for an engineering camp for young Korean scientists. There were people from Russia, Uzbekistan, Canada and all these other countries who were of Korean heritage and we all came together in Korea. It was all paid for, which was awesome. One of the nights we went out and played drinking games all related to the cap. I had no idea how many games you could play with just the cap. It was crazy! I was like, these are my people!

How did you find out about and what did you think about when you first saw it?
I was really excited because it was a compendium of half Korean people. Just to look through there and see who is half Korean and read bios and all the links was awesome.

Any words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
Be proud and continue highlighting and uplifting each other. There are a lot of great things about our community. Keep on keeping on!

Moogega’s Video Bio for King of the Nerds

We want to thank Moogega for spending time with us for this interview. You can connect with Moogega via her official Twitter or Facebook. Check out the official site for King of the Nerds, to learn more about the show.

In addition, thank you to Kristina Stafford at Turner Broadcasting for her assistance with this interview.

Interview by: David Lee Sanders

Posted: 4/10/2013

Back to Interviews

Moogega (무지개) Cooper / Photo by Jeremy Freeman


KOTN Season 1 Cast (Moogega on left in front row) / Photo by Doug Hyun


From KOTN episode “Enginerds” / Photo by Doug Hyun


Team Servants of the Foresaken Orb’s performing their “Nerd Anthem” on KOTN episode “Nerdy Dancing” / Photo by Doug Hyun


From KOTN episode “Supernerds” / Photo by Doug Hyun


From KOTN episode “Supernerds” / Photo by Doug Hyun


Moogega with her mother

At the 2009 Young Generation Forum in Korea

Making kimchi with family in Korea


(Pictures courtesy of TBS / Moogega Cooper)

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