Art imitates life for Mayim Bialik. The former child star (see: "Blossom") earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California—Los Angeles in 2007, and now plays neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS sitcom "Big Bang Theory."
But Bialik doesn't just hold a degree or play a role. The actress teaches science to home-schooled students, and just wrapped up a monthlong stint as the face of National HerWorld Month, an initiative designed to educate high school girls about opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.
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High School Notes talked with the actress, scientist and teacher about her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated STEM field and her advice for aspiring female scientists.
Q: You credit a former tutor with sparking your interest in science. What was it about that tutor's style or approach that made you view the subject differently?
A: The first thing that was special about her, that spoke to me, was that she was female. Growing up in a really boy-centered schooling system, where I thought science and math were for boys and the boys were happy to agree, it really helped for me to see someone female.
Also, the fact that she was so young and so enthusiastic; it seemed like that could be me. I think for a lot of girls that's something that's missing.
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Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a woman studying in a male-dominated field?
A: I was really shocked that grown-up female professors that I was so honored to be working with and learning from were still whispered about by people, in terms of what they look like and how they dress. You really do have to ignore that.
I looked especially to the "classically attractive" female professors to see how they handled it. A lot of it involved really trying to be appreciated for your work, and not getting into it about all the other aspects of your physical appearance.
Q: Some critics say the "Big Bang Theory" perpetuates some of the stereotypes about both men and women in science. What's your take on this?
A: I'm very proud to play a female scientist. Obviously, Amy is much more of a frumpy, quirky, social misfit, but she's in a really interesting and emotionally satisfying relationship that is not sexual, which I think is fascinating for a sitcom to show.
We also have the Bernadette character, that's really more adorned - she always wears flowery dresses - but she's also a woman who loves being a scientist. There's a line in an upcoming episode where she talks about the first time she looked under a microscope, and it was so neat to have a female character saying, "I loved it. I fell in love with science."
Q: What do you hope young girls take away from the show?
A: One of the greatest fears for anyone who's ever been a nerd is that you'll never find someone - to live with, to be friends with and to have that kind of social community. I think it's really awesome to see a show depicting a "Friends" sort of cast, where all of them are quirky and enjoy Dungeons & Dragons and all sorts of things that "aren't cool."
Q: What is your advice for high school girls who are worried they'll be deemed "nerds" or "geeks" because of their interest/ability in STEM subjects?
A: There's no better population of young people to reach with the message: You don't have to be one thing. If there are things that interest you, it's in your best interest to pursue them. To get this kind of training, and to have this kind of knowledge and wisdom, really makes for a more creative and a more exciting possibility for all those other arenas of your life.
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Q: Many students have that "I'm never going to use this" attitude toward advanced science and math. Acting isn't exactly a STEM career, but you've made it into one.
A: The training, and the knowledge and all of the things that come from learning about these subjects never leave you, no matter what you do. I view the world differently as a scientist now than I ever could have imagined I would.
It's not that you have to pursue a life in a STEM career if you train in it, though the fact is, the journey of this knowledge will likely make you want to pursue one of these fields. Even if you don't … math is everywhere. Science is everywhere. Having that knowledge is a wonderful, wonderful way to look at the world.
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