Actress Mayim Bialik On TV, Science, And The Combo

Fans of The Big Bang Theory may know her as Sheldon's sort-of-girlfriend Amy Farrah Fowler, but actor Mayim Bialik is also a writer, a proponent of "attachment parenting" and holds a PhD in neuroscience. Bialik discusses her career, and why she left academia to return to acting.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Depending on how old you are, you may know my next guest as the girl who played the young Bette Midler in "Beaches" or as the star of the '90s sit-down "Blossom," sitcom "Blossom" or as Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon Cooper's sort-of girlfriend on "The Big Bang Theory." Or maybe you know her as all three.

But you might not know that actor Mayim Bialik also has a Ph.D. in neuroscience. So why trade the world of real science geeks in academia for the geeks on "The Big Bang Theory"? She's here to tell us. Mayim Bialik is an actor and also the author of a new book "Beyond The Sling: The Real-life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children, the Attachment Parenting Way." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MAYIM BIALIK: Thank you, it's an honor to be here.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. What made you decide to switch from the world of real science to science on TV?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIALIK: I don't know that there's an easy, quick answer, but I'll do my best. My husband and I had our first son when we were both in graduate school at UCLA, and honestly, we kind of fell in love with being with our kids and particular really found a lot of value, both because I was studying the hormones of human attachment and because it made a lot of sense to us intuitively, we wanted me to be with our kids more than that kind of science career might have allowed for.

You know, the joke is that I figured I'll start auditioning here and there, and actors never work, so I'll be with my kids a ton.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIALIK: And I guess it was true until it wasn't, and when our younger son was almost two, I auditioned for "Big Bang Theory," but even still I wasn't made a regular until kind of end of last season, and a sitcom schedule happens to be very friendly. But at least in those early months and years of nursing and sleeping and all that stuff, I was absolutely able to be home with them, and I couldn't have done that the same way had I stayed in academia.

FLATOW: I hear you. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk with Mayim, and also our tweet, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Now give - tell us, behind the scenes, how close is she to how you really were as a scientist, that character you play?

BIALIK: Well, I mean, I'm still a scientist, you know. I think once a scientist, always a scientist. So the way I approach the world in a lot of ways is very similar to Amy. You know, I'd like to think I'm a little more socially skilled than Amy but really just by a fraction of a hair.

You know, obviously our characters are all meant to entertain, and so there's a lot of aspects of comedy and of things we say that are really done for the purposes of the audience. But I think in terms of the way she approaches, you know, her science craft, I'd like to think I had a lot of that same focus and dedication, which honestly many do and especially females, you know, trying to make a name in a pretty much male-dominated field. I think you get a specific kind of personality for sure.

FLATOW: Some people have been critical of it. I mean, I love the show, and we've - I've actually been on the show once, talking to Sheldon. But some people have been critical of it, saying, you know, it's too stereotyped. How do you react to that?

BIALIK: Right. Yeah, I mean, I hear that also from kind of the feminist side, you know, in terms of the female characters. I like to think that at least my character is one of Chuck Lorre's I think finest examples of a complicated female that he has shown. But, you know, we are there to entertain. That is ultimately what we do. And so stereotypes are entertaining. They have been for all of entertainment history.

I know people like all of those characters and then some, and to me, the fact that we're showing a slice of life of people who kind of live the way the rest of us live, meaning not the "Beverly Hills 90210" or the "Friends" kind of social structure.

These are people who love science fiction. They love comic books. They view the world as scientists, and no one is psychoanalyzing them about it. This is a group of people who are how the rest of us live.

FLATOW: Terrific. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with Mayim Bialik, who's also an actor on "The Big Bang Theory," also author of "Beyond The Sling: The Real-life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children, the Attachment Parenting Way." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Mayim Bialik, who is one of the stars on "The Big Bang Theory," she plays Amy Farrah Fowler. I guess, Mayim, sort of Sheldon's girlfriend? Has that ever been really defined, what's going on there?

BIALIK: Well, I was his friend who was a girl, who was not his girlfriend, for a while, and we now have a relationship agreement. So, you know, depending on which side of the Shamy you fall on, yes or no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So they didn't pick you as an actress because you were a biologist, a neurobiologist?

BIALIK: No, no, the industry is far more fickle and superficial than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But did they give you the choice of the scientist you wanted to be because of that?

BIALIK: No, no, there's also no choice in my profession. No, the joke is that - the joke I hear is that Bill Prady, our creator, executive producer, figured we might as well make her what Mayim is so Mayim can fix things if they're wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Interesting that you as a female scientist are playing on an even field with Sheldon Cooper, right?

BIALIK: Yeah, well, I mean, they - I think that the most disturbing thing about their relationship, at least to Sheldon, is that she's not a physicist. But he has a tremendous respect and affection for her mental capacities and her, you know, her general intellect, which I also think, you know, when challenged by feminists, I actually think that's a beautiful aspect of how they're portraying these characters. It's never, ever been brought up at all, really, what Amy looks like or is he attracted to her.

He's attracted to her because she's brilliant, and that's enough for him despite the fact that she's not a physicist, which I think is very sweet.

FLATOW: It is interesting. Let's go to the phones, to Stephanie(ph) in Daytona Beach. Hi, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE: Hi there.

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

STEPHANIE: First, I want to say I'm really excited. Mr. Flatow, I love your program, and Mayim, I think that you are the most amazing character on "Big Bang Theory." Thank you so much.

BIALIK: Thank you.

STEPHANIE: I was curious: The work that you do as a character, Amy Farrah Fowler, when she's in her lab, is that realistic? Is that similar to what you would be doing as a scientist in a real-life lab?

BIALIK: Yeah, I mean, it depends. The short answer is yes. I do have a part in sometimes helping design what kind of things we'd be doing in the lab. It doesn't exactly look like what our lab would look like, especially with dissection stuff. But there's also, you know, if you think about it hard enough, the kind of work she has mentioned she does varies widely. So I like to imagine that she's part of some larger lab and does a lot of different collaborations or maybe co-authors projects.

But yes, we use accurate tools that I would do dissections with. When we needed a tumor to be dissected, I was able to explain kind of the dimensions. You know, sometimes they change some of the adjectives if we need to describe tumors. And also in terms of brain regions. I try and make sure that that's accurate. You know, if they're talking about emotion, that we're talking about, you know, the amygdala or the basal ganglia and not about, you know, (unintelligible) cortex or something.

FLATOW: All right?

STEPHANIE: Yes, thank you so much. And I think that you deserve many more tiaras. That was the funniest episode ever.

BIALIK: Thank you.

STEPHANIE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you for your call. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Tina(ph) in St. Paul. Hi, Tina.

TINA: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

TINA: We're huge fans of the show, total fans, and I just have an observation. I'm wondering, I've always had very geek interests, and you know, did that push my kids, who are also involved in physics and pursuing advanced degrees in physics, or would they have found kind of geekiness on their own, you know, through their schoolmates and through the educational system?

BIALIK: I assume you're asking me, you know, as a neuroscientist. You know, there's a tremendous amount of genetic propensity not necessarily for what TV shows you like but for literally how you view the world, how you react to things, how things touch you and how things move you. So that's that part of it.

But absolutely, you know, raising a child in a geek-friendly atmosphere, which is what my two sons, you know, they're destined for geekiness, there's no way out of that one - that absolutely will have an influence as well. But I think you really do need to have kind of a template for that kind of world to then make sense to you.

FLATOW: How do you...

TINA: It's kind of funny because there's no question. My son was interested in the comic books, the Warhammer figures, the whole bit.

BIALIK: It's all your fault. He'll be in therapy talking about it. It's all your fault.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: How are you so sure, Mayim, that you...

TINA: Yeah, we love the show. We just absolutely love it. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. How are you so sure that your kids are going to follow the way you want them to with...

BIALIK: I don't even know if it's the way that I want them. I mean, the fact is, my husband, you know, my in-laws are Trekkies, and my husband also comes from musical theater background. On my side, obviously, I have a strong creative side, but also a really, really analytical, you know, philosophical side. So I like to say our kids just have a double dose of geek. So it's statistically going to happen.

But no, I think it depends. I don't know that I need them to go that way, but it's not a surprise to us that they already love comic books. They love the bigger issues of superheroes. It's not just the punching that they like. They like the concepts of good and evil. They like elaborate, you know, battles. They like those kinds of things because, you know, again, strongly genetically inclined.

FLATOW: In the storyline on "The Big Bang Theory," how important is it to get some real science into the show, or is that just sort of a peripheral thing?

BIALIK: You know, it's more a decision for our writers and producers, you know, in terms of what they need to move along in the plot and how. And, you know, thank God my job is to take the script and make it funny and not have to create it because that's not my skill.

But I think in terms of how accurate we want it, that's super-important. It's very important to our writers and producers. Many of them are scientifically inclined. Many of them have backgrounds in sort of science, tech stuff, and I would say it's extremely important to us, and that's part of the fun of our show, I think, is the accuracy.

Dr. David Salzberg is our physics consultant from UCLA. We do work hard on that stuff to make it accurate. It's important.

FLATOW: So all those equations we see on the blackboards in the living room...

BIALIK: Those make sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: They all make sense.

BIALIK: Yeah, all the posters on the walls of, you know, my lab and stuff like that, they're actually pulled from neurobiology labs at UCLA. So yeah, that stuff really matters to us.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, Amy(ph) in Springfield, Mass. Hi, Amy.

AMY: Hi, I want to say thank you for being someone who's in the public eye who's willing to speak out about attachment parenting, about being present with your children, about sleeping with your children. I have six kids. I work in a place called Cradle that's all about supporting moms and parents, and I want to thank you so much for sharing that with people who wouldn't otherwise get access to it.

BIALIK: Thank you.

AMY: And I want to thank you - sorry, go ahead.

FLATOW: No, go ahead.

AMY: I also want to thank you for your willingness to come and - Mayim is coming to speak to our school in West Hartford. And something that hasn't been brought up and maybe you don't talk about a lot is just we're grateful that - to see someone who is an Orthodox Jew who is able to maintain that presence and dress appropriately, as one would, on a national television show.

And I want to thank you for being able to do that and role-modeling that for young women (unintelligible) as a neuroscientist.

BIALIK: No, I appreciate it sincerely. I will say that, you know, the decision for them to dress Amy frumpy has nothing to do, you know, with any levels of Jewish or religious modesty, but I think it's been really nice that we've had a consistent look for Amy that absolutely, you know, is in some ways consistent with how I tend to dress.

But there's nothing about, you know, any dress codes that say that you have to be frumpy. But yes, Amy happens to be a frumpy version of me, I guess.

FLATOW: All right, thank you, Amy, on the phone for joining us this hour. We're talking with Mayim Bialik. Now, I understand - and, you know, when we put up on Facebook, on our website, that you were coming on, we had a slew of comments about - a debate going on there. And I want to just try to boil them all down into one little question.

BIALIK: Right.

FLATOW: And I know what - you know what the question is going to be about, I'm sure.

BIALIK: I've got about seven choices, but go ahead, lay it on me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No, it's the fact that you have not vaccinated your kids.

BIALIK: Oh, I rarely talk about that. That's so funny.

FLATOW: Well, people were very eager to talk about it because you're in agreement with the American Academy of Pediatricians on their stance on breastfeeding, as you point out in your book. But the group also strongly recommends vaccinations for kids.

BIALIK: Sure, and also I should say that attachment parenting, as defined by Dr. William Sears and Attachment Parenting International, has absolutely no opinion on vaccines. It's a completely separate issue, one that I do not discuss in the book for that reason.

And what I do mention in the book is I give some resources for kind of pros and cons kinds of books. Dr. Lawrence Fader(ph) wrote a fantastic small book. What I do say is that we researched every single vaccine, and we spoke about each individual vaccine with our pediatrician. We went to the CDC sources.

The number of vaccines that you and I received when we were kids is a third or a fourth less than what kids get now. So my feeling is you can really do whatever you want, just like I get to do whatever I want, but I don't inherently think that no one should get the flu, for example. And that's my personal opinion.

FLATOW: You mean the vaccine.

BIALIK: Yeah, meaning to me, the things that people choose to vaccinate against are not necessarily things that were vaccinated against 20, 30 years ago. My feeling is everyone gets to decide and do research based on their family and their needs as to what they want to do. But it's completely separate from attachment parenting or from my book.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's get a couple more of calls here. From Andy in Washington. Hi, Andy.

ANDY: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

ANDY: I was calling because I have a son that's heading off to get his Ph.D. from CalTech. And I had heard that the show at least in part is based on students from that school. And that would make sense if it's true because my son is a little bit like Sheldon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDY: I was just curious if that's true.

BIALIK: Yeah. That is where our show takes place. Our show takes place in Pasadena. That's where we gravitate. The Cheesecake Factory we go to on the show is supposed to be the one in Pasadena. Yeah. It's a Pasadena-centric show. And we talk frequently, you know, about CalTech and stuff like that. But I don't think it's where you have to send people if they're like Sheldon Cooper, just so you know.

FLATOW: Is there a local tour of the places that the cast go to on the show?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIALIK: Not to my knowledge. That's actually a great question. Not to my knowledge.

FLATOW: Like "Seinfeld" had that tour where - in New York, where - to see where Kramer and everybody went. Is there anything like that in Pasadena?

BIALIK: That's hysterical. Not that I know of. But that's actually a really cute idea. And we can talk about it off the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Is there something you'd like to do on the show? Do you get, you know, a chance to develop your character in a way that you haven't been doing yet?

BIALIK: I don't know. I'm super-grateful to be an employed actor. I'm super-grateful to be at a stage of my career where I have two sweet kids waiting for me at home. And whatever happens at work, I get to leave at work and be with my kids every afternoon and evening. I don't know. I mean, I'm curious if they're going to do kind of an ugly duckling reveal for my character. But honestly, I'm really grateful for whatever they throw at me. I love working with Jim Parsons in particular.

I love, you know, the sort of dance that we're doing with our relationship. But no, I think other kind of theatrical aspirations may occur outside of "Big Bang Theory." I don't know.

FLATOW: Is it surprising to you how popular the show is - I mean, about a bunch of geeky physicists and now you in there (unintelligible)? It's like one of the highest rated shows on television.

BIALIK: It is. We're, I think, the top-rated sitcom. I don't know. I've always thought the geeky world that I revolved in was fascinating.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIALIK: And I guess I hope that people are, you know, laughing with us and not at us. But, as I said, our show is not a group of attractive people and the various permutations of hookups that they can, you know, have in a five-year period. It's really a show about kind of normal people. And you know, I think some people may enjoy watching because they're more abnormal...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BIALIK: ...than, you know, than the viewers. But I also think a lot of people really resonate with a lifestyle that's not entirely around who can you date and, you know, what kind of materialistic successes can you have. But sometimes you just want to build a LEGO Death Star.

FLATOW: Yeah. Talking with Mayim Bialik on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's go - some more folks want to talk to you about "The Big Bang Theory." Let's go to the phones. Go to Christine in Boulder. Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Hi. Hi, Amy. Hi, Ira. I love the show. I think it's so awesome. I am in Boulder, so I'm around all these geeky scientists. I'm married to a scientist. I have never seen "Star Wars," "Star Trek," any of those shows. And when "The Big Bang Theory" came on, I thought, oh no, not another one. But I'm hooked on it. I identify with Penny. These guys are really like this in true life and the women scientists too. But I thought it was so funny when Penny ends up referencing like "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" or something. And she's like so shocked. I found myself doing the same thing. I've never seen those shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHRISTINE: (Unintelligible) association.

BIALIK: Yes. We're insidious. That's for sure.

FLATOW: Did you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Did you have to...

CHRISTINE: So I love it.

BIALIK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Thanks for calling. Mayim, did you have to research all these things you didn't, you know, the comic books and the references?

BIALIK: The only thing I had to research was what's "The Big Bang Theory."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You had no idea...

BIALIK: Actually, I had never seen the show. I was probably too busy just being a general geek. No. I was raised on comic books, and I love science fiction. I got into kind of more graphic novels and stuff as I got older. But no, I had never seen "The Big Bang Theory." I go to movies about comic book people. You know, I'm like an "X-Men" kind of person. And I don't know. That's much more of my world than the popular culture world.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BIALIK: So no, I mean Jim Parsons, he likes to joke not only am I the only person who knows what all of the characters are saying in the script. I'm the only person who actually cares about like the comic book store set. I spend my time in there hanging out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Any thoughts about when your kids are older that you might go back to being a real-life geek again as a scientist?

BIALIK: I actually, I teach neuroscience. I teach in our home school community. I've been teaching neuroscience since I got my degree. So our boys get a good dose of that and see that I'm still an active scientist. I actually - I'm the spokesperson for Texas Instruments, the graphing calculator and scientific calculator people. So we've already started our boys with the new NSpire. You know, we like to show them a lifestyle of science and math. And it's actually been really fun, that like with T.I., I get to have access to all, you know, all the like pH probes and temperature probes that can hook up to this calculator. We've started our boys as soon as possible...

FLATOW: Do you think that's a good thing for parents to try - you know, kids are natural scientists. They start out wanting to know how everything works, but they can't keep them motivated.

BIALIK: Sure. I mean, yeah, I think, you know, I think that's one aspect. I think, you know, sociologically, it's also important, especially in communities that don't have funding and where kids can't imagine what it looks like to be a scientist. That's part of why I wanted to do this with T.I., to be able to show kids as young as possible these are the kinds of things scientists do, and you can do it. You can do it too. So yeah, I think it's tremendously important.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you think we should ask any of our candidates for the president some science geeky questions, see how they do?

BIALIK: I would watch that, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: That would(ph) tell us something about what they know. OK. Thank you very much, Mayim, for taking time to be with us and good luck to you, and we'll keep watching the show, and who knows, maybe we can make another appearance sometime. Thanks again.

BIALIK: Thank you. This was a real honor. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Thank you very much. Mayim Bialik, actor, also author of the new book "Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way."

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