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'Big Bang Theory' actress 'fell in love with the neuron' and hopes other girls will, too

pbaniak@herald-leader.comJanuary 31, 2014 

Actress Mayim Bialik encourages girls to study science, technology, engineering and math.

MOREHEAD — First, I'll admit that I went to see The Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik speak at Morehead State primarily because I'm a fan of the show, in all its nerdy glory.

But as the actress who plays neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS comedy spoke to the large, attentive crowd in Morehead's Academic-Athletic Center, I found myself thinking about something other than the popular TV show:

I wish my daughter could hear this.

Of course, during her lecture, Bialik told the crowd about her experiences in Hollywood, as a child star on the 1990s sitcom Blossom, now as a key character on The Big Bang Theory. She talked about juggling her career and being the mother of two young sons. Much of her talk, though, focused on her real-life path to earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. As the child of two English teachers, Bialik gravitated toward the arts and humanities over math and science early in her educational life.

"I assumed I wasn't good at math and science," she said, "because the way it was taught to me didn't make sense to me."

She saw her math and science classes dominated by boys. The notion that math and science were subjects for boys was ever-present and reinforced.

That is, until a biology tutor sparked her own interest and passion for science in her teens.

"I never knew you could feel that way about science," she said.

Between Blossom and The Big Bang Theory, Bialik, now 38, left acting for a while to pursue her science degree at UCLA. While there, she said, "I fell in love with the neuron."

She specialized in studying the neurogenetic disorder Prader-Willi Syndrome and the role of certain hormones in obsessive-compulsive behaviors. She talked about that research, too, on Thursday night. And in response to a question from the audience, she talked about why she's so passionate about science, and passionate about encouraging girls to study science, technology, engineering and math (commonly know as the STEM fields).

More than anything, for her, studying science is about discovering the "beauty and wonder" in how things are made, and understanding how they fit together in the world and universe around us. She talked about loving math and numbers, too.

Even though she has now moved back into acting, she noted the lasting power of the perspective provided by STEM-based learning. "That kind of education stays with you forever."

My oldest daughter is right around the age that Bialik was when she first had her interest sparked in science.

Even though my daughter has two journalist parents who gravitate toward writing and the humanities, she is, thankfully, interested in science and math. And she's had some great, inspirational teachers in Fayette County schools who have encouraged that interest. In fact, on the day Bialik spoke, my daughter and her classmates were on a field trip to Louisville, part of which included a trip to the Kentucky Science Center.

I want all three of my kids to follow whichever path of study and life they choose. But I'm glad science and math are in the conversation.

A lot of groups in Kentucky and around the nation have focused on encouraging young people to study science and math, girls in particular. Anecdotally, it's an encouraging sign that many of the questions Bialik was asked during her Q&A Thursday night came from female Morehead State students majoring in the sciences.

Here's my takeaway from her lecture: It's about that one passionate teacher, that one great role model in the fields of science and math, that one bit of personal introduction (including such things as Kentucky's university community bringing in thoughtful, relatable speakers such as Bialik). It's about a nudge in the right direction, and a willingness to look at the wonder of the universe a bit differently.

Herald-Leader Editor Peter Baniak can be reached at (859) 231-3446. Email: pbaniak@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @pbaniak

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