Most child stars talk about on-set tutors as a fact of life. Younger than a certain age, kid actors still have to be in some form of school, even if they are playing the title character on a major network television show. But Mayim Bialik found more in her biology tutor while she was starring on the NBC sitcom Blossom.
"I had a biology tutor who was sort of the first person who made me believe I could pursue science even though it didn't come naturally to me," says Bialik, who played the title role on the series from 1991 to 1995. "She was a dental student at UCLA at the time, and she's now a dental surgeon with four children of her own."
Bialik now famously has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.
We say famously because that parallels her character Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory.
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That makes Bialik atypical in a couple of ways: She is a child star with a successful acting career as an adult, and she is a woman in the sciences.
Bialik comes to Morehead State University on Thursday night to speak on her own life and her passions, including encouraging more girls and women to pursue studies and careers in science, engineering, technology and math, commonly referred to as the STEM fields.
"I was told science is for boys, and all the boys said so, and so I thought because it wasn't easy for me, it must not be for me," recalls Bialik, who is 38 and the mother of two sons. "It wasn't until I had someone one-on-one believe in me and show me that just because I didn't learn as quickly as other kids doesn't mean it's not for me. That was a very important lesson."
When Blossom ended, Bialik says, she really didn't expect to continue an acting career. Her family had always emphasized the importance of education; she began studying neuroscience expecting to pursue a career in the field.
'A female Jim Parsons'
She was drawn back to acting by a need for health insurance while she was in graduate school (with her studies focusing on obsessive-compulsive disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome). She figured if she could get some show-biz work, she could get back on a union insurance plan. But she taught neuroscience for five years and didn't see a return to series TV in her future.
Then Amy came calling.
The Big Bang Theory, the No. 1-rated comedy on TV, centers on scientists Sheldon (played by Jim Parsons) and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), and their relationship with their across-the-hall neighbor, waitress and aspiring actress Penny (Kaley Cuoco). The main ensemble is rounded out by astrophysicist Raj (Kunal Nayyar) and mechanical engineer Howard (Simon Helberg).
Sheldon, a role for which Parsons has won three Emmy Awards for outstanding actor in a comedy series, is the alpha nerd among the geeky quartet. The theoretical physicist takes his own genius for granted and is relatively oblivious to most social conventions.
Finding a girlfriend for Sheldon seemed mostly out of the question — but in stepped Amy, whom Raj and Howard found for Sheldon at the end of the third season, in 2010, through an online dating service.
"I was basically told they needed a female Jim Parsons," Bialik says of her first time on the show. "I like that she says everything that comes to mind. I like how different our female characters are on the show, I like her scientific curiosity and I like her affection for Sheldon, which is very sweet."
Not that he is easy to like. Bialik says that is key to understanding Sheldon and Amy's relationship.
"There's someone for everyone," says Bialik, who has twice been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for her work as Amy. "This is an excellent example. This is a couple that appreciates each other and likes each other, and likes being together.
"Amy is crazy about Sheldon, even with all his quirks, and he seems to really adore her. You can't always expect someone to love you the way that you want to love them. You have to accept them the way they want to love you.
Stemming the tide
One mistaken notion, Bialik says, is that with her neuroscience background, she consults on scripts.
"Sometimes writers will say, 'Hey, Mayim, what region of the brain is blah-blah-blah?" But no, I don't consult in any capacity," she says. "Many of our writers have science backgrounds and are intelligent people. They do not need me, at all. Sometimes I'll be asked, 'What could Sheldon be doing in a lab, here?' But I don't in any formal way consult."
She says her neuroscience background has helped inform her portrayal of Amy, but she notes, "You don't have to be a scientist to be on Big Bang Theory. As an actor, it's your job to portray all sorts of characters and make them believable."
But Bialik appreciates being on a show that presents two women in science. Howard's wife, Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), also introduced in season three, is a microbiologist.
"We need all sorts of voices in the STEM field, and the female voice is a very important one," Bialik says. "It is constantly battling statistics and perception."
It's a perception she hopes to change through her speaking and acting.