Hollywood kid needs a bio tutor: Mayim Bialik’s blossoming love of science

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Hollywood kid needs a bio tutor: Mayim Bialik’s blossoming love of science

Actress Mayim Bialik recounts how a tutor changed her perceptions of women in science and set the groundwork for her academic career in neuroscience

by Mayukh Sen on Wednesday, July 8, 2015 - 10:46am

Mayim Bialik wasn’t good at math or science in elementary school.

Today she holds a PhD in neuroscience and co-stars in TV's “The Big Bang Theory.” But as a child, she had few positive female role models who could inspire her to excel in science. It wasn’t fashionable to be a girl who possessed skill in those realms, she recalls, and Bialik, already the target of merciless taunts for her appearance, didn’t want to attract even more adverse attention. She devoted herself to the humanities, developing an unconditional love for poetry.

As a teenager, her attitude toward science changed. Around the time Bialik became famous for her starring role in NBC’s “Blossom,” her parents ran a classified advertisement in a local paper, which read “Hollywood Kid Needs a Bio Tutor.”

The ad worked. The tutor, an undergraduate at UCLA, was the first great female role model she’d had in the sciences. Bialik discovered a passion she’d never known—a love for science she’d carry with her throughout her life.

Bialik discussed her career during a talk organized by Hillel at Stanford and co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute. She touched upon both her work as an actress and academic, highlighting her unique place in Hollywood as a woman in science.

Mayim Balik

A blossoming career

Bialik began her acting career with bit roles in various television shows and movies, ranging from “The Facts of Life” to “MacGyver.” However, it was her childhood role in 1988’s "Beaches," the tearjerker starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, that would catapult Bialik to fame. As Bialik recalls, ruthless Hollywood producers described her appearance as an ungainly hybrid between Midler and Barbra Streisand, both of whom constituted unconventional beauties compared to the Michelle Pfeiffer paradigm of perfection at the time.  

At age 14, Bialik began her fondly-remembered starring role on “Blossom,” a perfect vehicle for Bialik's vivaciousness, spunk and happy-go-lucky attitude. She drew comedic inspiration from women like Tracey Ullman, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, actresses who didn’t try to be leading ladies in the traditional mold. 

“It was a huge risk to do a television show about a girl,” Bialik remembered. “It was an even bigger risk to do a show about a girl from a divorced home. Producers said that girls would watch boys, boys would watch boys, but boys wouldn’t watch girls.”

“Blossom” was quietly revolutionary for its time. Its premise centered around a mother who'd left a family of a husband and two kids to pursue her own career, leaving the rest of her family to adjust to this unexpected change. In its five-season run, the show tackled issues of premarital sex, alcohol, drugs and domestic abuse.

The show never made it past the top 20 in ratings, yet it made Bialik something of a household name. She would still, however, find herself relegated to the realm of character acting by virtue of her appearance.

“It’s hard not looking like other people,” she admitted. “It’s always hard.”

"It's hard not looking like other people."

Falling in love with the neuron

Bialik played Blossom until she was 19, when she was accepted to undergraduate programs at Harvard, Yale and UCLA. Wanting to stay close to home, she chose to go to UCLA to study neuroscience and Jewish studies, an opportunity for which she was unbelievably grateful.

Her university experience was by turns rewarding and grueling. Bialik especially recalls a tough battle against organic chemistry. Nevertheless, she excelled so completely in her other classes that she not only completed her undergraduate degree but also continued this work into a doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA. She obtained her Ph.D. in 2007.

“I was in awe of the neuron,” she remembered. “I fell in love with it. I loved how it was the smallest, most intimate level at which we could understand each experience and interaction we had as humans.”

A return to acting

Today, for the generation who grew up without “Blossom,” Bialik is best known for her role as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on “The Big Bang Theory.” She humbly admitted that she’s been nominated for two Emmys for her work in it, something that still shocks her. Writers originally conceived the character as a love interest to Jim Parsons’ Sheldon, and, as such, they had posited her as a sort of female answer to the awkward, intelligent character.

Bialik's role begs an intriguing question: Does a woman, in Hollywood or in life, have to choose between the ravishing beauty and the nerdy, book-smart type? Why can’t she be both? Is it impossible to imagine a media marketplace in which a woman can possess both qualities?

“It’s a statement of feminism to control how and when people see you.”

During her Stanford talk, Bialik took particular issue with the pressures Hollywood puts on women. The industry, she noted, is alarmingly ageist towards women, telling them either to retire or to get plastic surgery if they want their careers to stay afloat. Bialik noted that she has often come under fire when she’s chosen not to wear a tight-fitting or revealing dress to awards ceremonies. Yet she takes pride in going against the grain by wearing what she wants to wear. “I get to decide how I am gazed upon,” Bialik proclaimed. “It’s a statement of feminism to control how and when people see you.”

Bialik now stands as an uncommonly inspiring figure, one who has excelled in the realms of both acting and academia. As an actress, she feels proud to do work that respects her for, above all, her mind.

“I just want to be a normal person valued for my brain,” she laughed, with self-effacement, “And all that good stuff.”

 

"An Evening with Mayim Bialik" was co-sponsored by Hillel at Stanford, the Clayman Institute, the Department of Biology, the Department of Human Biology, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, the Office for Religious Life, and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

 
Mayukh Sen

Mayukh Sen graduated from Stanford University in 2014 with a double major in history and communication.

Mayim Bialik

Mayim Bialik is a noted actress who is a star on the hit show “The Big Bang Theory.” She has a B.S. in neuroscience and Jewish studies and a PhD in neuroscience, both from UCLA.