BOSTON — She is a real scientist. And she plays one on TV. Mayim Bialik, co-star of the popular television comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” is also the nation’s number one science-geek girl.
When Bialik appeared in the grand ballroom of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center last week, the capacity crowd responded with applause, cheers and scattered whistles. The room was packed not with teenage fans, but with teachers — STEM teachers, to be exact — who teach science, technology, engineering and math in schools across the country. Over 11,000 of them gathered for their annual National Science Convention conference, a four-day celebration of the inner nerd, the outer geek, and a passion for teaching. Mayim Bialik, a self-confessed science nerd, was the opening keynote speaker.
On “The Big Bang Theory,” Bialik’s character, Amy Farrah Fowler, is a neurobiologist with a thing for socially inept über-geek Sheldon Cooper. Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, as well as a bachelor’s in neuroscience, Hebrew studies, and Jewish studies. Equally enthusiastic about science and Judaism, she has done original research on Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, and was a founding member of Shamayim v’Aretz Institute, which describes itself as a center for spirituality and leadership promoting “compassionate eating” and kosher veganism.
In an extended Q&A with the audience, she spoke candidly about juggling the demands of careers and single-parenthood, admitting that she returned to acting in part because it gave her more flexibility than being a research scientist, making it easier to homeschool her two young boys.
The daughter of two public school teachers, she is deeply committed to science education and sees “the world as a scientist,” while at the same time she said she is on a spiritual journey as an “aspiring Modern Orthodox” Jew.
“My parents were documentary filmmakers, artists, very bohemian. They were not religious at all, but there were remnants. At first we kept kosher, then my parents stopped, then I took on some kashrut in junior high,” she said. When asked about her activism in environmental and animal welfare causes, she said, “The synagogue that I grew up in was very heavy into tikkun olam.”
Bialik generously agreed to a one-on-one interview sandwiched in the few minutes between her keynote address and a shtick as official representative for Texas Instruments, which will have her showcasing new science teaching tools based on a zombie apocalypse scenario. In the lobby of her hotel, she and her publicist threaded their way through teachers wanting to take “selfies” with her. She was graciously but efficiently accommodating.
When asked about the different approaches manifest in Torah studies and science — one in which truth is given and permanent, the other in which truth is provisional and evolving — she said, “I always sort of resonated with the order of Judaism. Halacha makes sense to me; it’s logical, scientific in its own way. My God is a very scientific God, the God of Science, the God of all of evolution and the creation of the Torah with a story of the creation of the world in seven days.”
“A lot of my formative years were about being a Jewish person, the grandchild of Eastern European immigrants who became public school teachers. Yiddish was spoken in my home. I grew up with a very strong sense of Jewish identity, of otherness, differentness. I looked different, very Jewish,” she added.
How has being an actor and a scientist affected the way people in each field deal with her? “Actors don’t really need to deal with me as a scientist. In fact, none of the other actors on ‘Big Bang Theory’ are actually science nerds. In the scientific community, however, everyone knows I am also an actor, and maybe it is a little harder for them to take me seriously. The fact that science didn’t come naturally to me was an extra challenge,” she said.
The turning point for Bialik came in her teens while doing the show “Blossom.” She needed help with biology, and her hired tutor gave her confidence that she, too, could do science and math, could even become a scientist.
Complex, candid, unfazed by contradictions, Bialik defies all attempts to pigeonhole her. The word magic kept popping up. She talked with her audience about bringing “Hollywood magic” into the science curriculum, then said in the interview that besides science, she liked to read magical realism, a category of fiction that some might consider to be a contradiction in terms. That seemed fitting for a Jewish scientist-actor and spiritual activist.
Larry Constantine is a former university professor who writes fiction under the pen name, Lior Samson. His seventh novel, “Gasline,” was recently published.