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Why This 'Big Bang Theory' Star Got a Ph.D. in Science

Mayim Bialik tells Neil DeGrasse Tyson about transitioning from acting to neuroscience—then playing a scientist on The Big Bang Theory.

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Onetime child star Mayim Bialik earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience, then returned to acting on TV hit The Big Bang Theory—playing a scientist. It’s given her a unique view of women’s roles, in STEM fields and in general.


This story appears in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So in your childhood, were there any science influences?

Mayim Bialik: There were a few. In junior high school I had a physics teacher who was very eccentric and would sometimes fall asleep while showing us slide shows, but he was a brilliant physicist. I went to a very unusual school: The 1980s sitcom Head of the Class, about a group of very smart and precocious children, was actually based on the school I went to. After junior high I had tutors on set because I was on this show Blossom from the time I was 14 to 19—

NT: No, you were not “on the show”—you were Blossom, to make that clear.

MB: Um, yes. OK. [Laughs]

NT: This saddens me. That one single person made a life difference to you—but how many students are missing that one person?

MB: The first answer is: Many girls are. I’m sure we could run the statistics on it. And that’s because of a historical difference in the representation of women in these STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields and probably a cultural bias on the part of teachers and administrators. I think there’s been a shift in education since I was in school in the ’70s and ’80s, but then it was like, Oh, you’re not naturally good at math? Better try English—how’s your Chaucer?

NT: There are people who presume that unless something comes easily to them, they should never pursue it as a career—without realizing that some of the greatest achievements you ever attain are because you busted ass to reach that point.

MB: Yeah. If I had not gone to college, I might have kept acting and been happy like that. But I loved going to UCLA and doing something that was very challenging academically. I loved doing research with adolescents with special needs—that was seven years of my life. It was exciting to get my Ph.D. in 2007. But in terms of time to raise my two sons, the flexible life of an actor was better than the long hours of a research professor.

NT: Fast-forward to 2010 and The Big Bang Theory. Who would have guessed how popular this show would become?

MB: Not me! I had never seen it before I auditioned.

NT: On the show you play Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, who’s a neuroscientist.

MB: She’s actually a neurobiologist … but I get to say neuroscience things.

NT: How much of your professional self do you bring to your character?

MB: Since the job of an actor is to present a character even if you’ve never been in that profession, I guess I have the easiest job—I don’t have to stretch that far.

NT: I try to imagine someone pitching the show idea to network executives: “Let’s have six scientists, and they’ll talk but you won’t know what they’re talking about, and they’ll crack jokes and they’ll laugh, but they won’t explain it to you.” I think it was low-hanging comedic fruit because no one had tackled it before.

MB: For sure. All the shows that I grew up with were about attractive people, and who had sex with who on which week. Meanwhile, our show is about the people who watch those shows.

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The cast of geeky-scientist characters in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory includes neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) and her boyfriend, physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons).


NT: Might there ever be room in your show for a female character who’s more sexualized—but also a full-on scientist?

MB: We did an episode where the Bernadette character, a microbiologist, poses for a “sexy scientist” photo shoot and Amy has a very big problem with it.

NT: I remember that episode. Your character, Amy, sabotages the photo shoot.

MB: That’s right. When I do advocacy for STEM careers for young women, I’m often asked, What do you think about [the sexy-scientist stereotype of] the white shirt open with the black bra underneath? And you know, I don’t knock women or scientists who want to do that. For me, that’s not the way that I choose to portray women in science. I don’t think that’s the only way to generate interest. It might be the only way to get a certain population of men interested in women in science … But it’s not a personal goal of mine to further that notion of women scientists.

But then I got older and understood. Marine biology, working with animals, working in the environment—all those things are science. You like engineering? You want to do coding? Knock yourself out. There are many STEM careers that involve a lot of variety and a lot of creativity. And that’s what I think we need to try and communicate to girls as young as possible.

NT: That was awesome! That’s like the whole show right there.

MB: Thank you. And I didn’t even have to take my clothes off to do it.

This interview, drawn from a March 2016 StarTalk taping, was edited for length and clarity.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mondays at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond is available wherever books are sold and at shopng.com/startalk.


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