The Science Life: Scientific method acting

Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist, and she plays one on TV. Bialik is neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom centered on the lives of four scientists at Caltech.

Neuroscientist Mayim Bialik (left) slices a brain over dinner with costar Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory. CBS

Bialik was an actor long before she became a scientist. As a teenager, she starred in the television show Blossom and the movie Beaches. On the set of Blossom, Bialik’s love of science was kindled by one of her tutors, a predental student. Bialik went on to college at UCLA and finished her Ph.D. in neuroscience there in 2007.

After her first son was born, Bialik and her husband realized that the life of a research professor wouldn’t provide the flexibility she wanted to spend time with her children, and she returned to acting. But she doesn’t regret the time she spent earning her degree. “There’s never a waste of study,” she says.

The Big Bang Theory is a fictional look at scientists, but Bialik says the portrayals are true to her real-life experience. Part of the show’s charm stems from the writers being as “brilliant, nerdy and geeky” as the characters they create, she says. “It’s not a bunch of cool, attractive people making fun of nerds. It’s a bunch of nerds making fun of nerds.”

Originally, her character had no particular occupation, but when the producers saw “neuroscientist” on Bialik’s resume, Amy Farrah Fowler became a neurobiologist. The decision means Bialik gets to offer pointers on how real biology labs work.

Her character always wears a lab coat and gloves in the lab, just like a good scientist should. Now and again, Bialik corrects scientific inaccuracies in the script, but sometimes science takes a backseat to gags. “I get a little twitch if something is wrong,” she says, but preserving scientific accuracy is “often more complicated than it should be for a laugh.”

Ongoing debates between Amy and her boyfriend Sheldon Cooper (played by Jim Parsons) about whose scientific discipline is better are right on the money. “I have for sure had that discussion, both sober and intoxicated, in graduate school,” Bialik says. And like her character, she’s got an argument-ending statement for any physicists who disdain brain research: “The very fact that you can think about which science is better means neuroscience rules.” 

Scientists with an acting theory

Mayim Bialik is not the only actor with a background in science or medicine.

Associated Press

Hedy Lamarr (shown), a celebrated actress of the 1940s and ’50s, patented an idea for wireless communication.

Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years) contributed to the Chayes-McKellar-Winn mathematical theorem.

Oscar winner Natalie Portman was a semifinalist in the 1999 Intel Science Talent Search and coauthored a brain-imaging study as a Harvard undergrad.

Action star Dolph Lundgren won a Fulbright scholarship to study chemical engineering, but gave it up to become a bodyguard for actress Grace Jones.

Ken Jeong (Se±or Chang on Community) has a medical degree.

Masi Oka (Hiro on Heroes) has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics. He works as a digital effects artist when he is not acting.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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