Brendon Villegas and his teammate, Rachel Reilly, arrived in Paraguay hours after the first half of their group.
Their first task seemed impossible: to stack nearly 300 watermelons into a pyramid.
Instead, they did the alternative task that was offered to them: dancing while balancing bottles on their heads. They completed it.
From what seemed like a fight for last place, they became the second team to finish the leg of the race.
Villegas, a UCLA doctoral student in biomedical physics, participated in the event as a contestant on the 20th season of “The Amazing Race,” which is currently showing on CBS.
In “The Amazing Race,” contestants compete in teams of two in a fast-paced journey around the world. To prevent elimination and win the race, contestants complete various tasks based on the culture of each country they visit.
This is not the first time Villegas has appeared on television. He is also well-known for being on CBS’s “Big Brother” in 2010 and 2011, another reality TV show where contestants live in a house together and compete to avoid eviction.
Despite the television fame, working for his doctorate is still Villegas’ priority. Villegas’ research focuses on using positron emission tomography imaging to look into the fundamental causes of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, which may have similarities with how cells malfunction and turn into cancer cells.
“I really do want to be taken seriously as a scientist,” he said.
Science has always been his passion, he said. When he was young, Villegas played with chemistry sets. Now, during his spare time, in addition to participating in multiple sports, he reads biographies of famous scientists such as Albert Einstein.
Villegas said he decided to take time from his doctorate to participate in “The Amazing Race” partly for the opportunity to win money, but also for the chance to travel.
“It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Villegas said.
Reilly, Villegas’ teammate on “The Amazing Race,” is also his fiancee. They both appeared on the 12th and 13th seasons of “Big Brother.”
Reilly won the 13th season of “Big Brother,” and after she won, CBS asked the couple to appear on “The Amazing Race.”
Villegas said he hesitated at first, knowing that the one month needed to film the show meant one month taken away from completing his doctorate studies at UCLA. But his adviser for his dissertation, Jorge Barrio, encouraged Villegas to participate in “The Amazing Race.”
“Experiences students have outside of the laboratory environment are very important to broaden their scope,” Barrio said. “It is really important to open up and understand what the world is. I think this is a terrific experience for (Villegas).”
Competing in “The Amazing Race” was more stressful than he thought it would be, Villegas said. Villegas and Reilly often ran on four hours of sleep. Sometimes they didn’t know when they would have time to eat, so they filled up on the crackers given on airplanes.
But the overall experience was worth it, he said.
Michael McNitt-Gray, director of the UCLA biomedical physics graduate program, has known Villegas for three years. Even though Villegas has spent a lot of time on multiple reality TV shows, he is a very dedicated student, McNitt-Gray said.
Before becoming a doctoral candidate, Villegas had worked 20 jobs since turning 16, including helping his father with his job as a bricklayer. The job taught him the value of hard work, and made him appreciate his educational opportunities, he said. It also strengthened his desire to become a scientist.
One reason he chose to study biomedical physics was the opportunity he could have to help cancer patients, Villegas said. Cancer has personally affected Villegas’ life: his uncle passed away from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and his grandmother passed away from a brain tumor five years ago.
“Watching my grandma go through that was hard,” Villegas said. “That’s when it really hit home with me ““ cancer is indiscriminate, nobody’s safe.”
After completing his doctorate, Villegas said he hopes to continue his research and possibly work at a center for cancer patients, like the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Villegas said he was lucky to be on reality television, but he does not want to make it more important than his dedication to science.
“When I’m gone, I want to leave something,” Villegas said. “If I can help improve healthcare, science, medicine, or anything before I die, that’s what I want to do.”