Jewish Alliance for Women in Science
JAWS Highlighted Feature
JAWS Highlighted Feature
Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!
Check back soon! More to come!
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Meet our April Woman of the Month Mayim Bialik!
Mayim Bialik may just be the most unique person we have ever met. Ever!
Child star of the hit TV series Blossom? Check!
Ph.D. in neuroscience, research on Prader-Willi Syndrome and a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies? Yep!
Loving wife and mom of two adorable boys? Of course!
Prolific writer and author of a soon to be released book on attachment parenting?
Oh, what about a return to acting with guest appearances on hit TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bones, and The Big Bang Theory (just to name a few)?
Yes, yes, and YES!
But wait- there’s more! Mayim also prioritizes the observance of Judaism in her life and in her family’s life!
And now, Mayim may just be the most unique person you have ever met! Please enjoy our one on one interview with Mayim on everything from science to mentoring to motherhood and more. The interview concludes with different videos of Mayim, from her childhood acting on Blossom to her recent speech and interview at the Jewish gathering, TribeFest.
Hello Mayim. Congratulations on being the very first woman invited by J.A.W.S. to be interviewed as our Woman of the Month! Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s get started. Not all of our viewers are familiar with your story. Can you describe to them your wonderful and fascinating background?
Well, I am a second-generation American raised in Los Angeles by English teachers. I had my own television show from 1990-1994 ("Blossom"), attended UCLA after that, and studied Neuroscience. I received both my B.S. and a Ph.D. from UCLA in Neuroscience in 2007, with 2 small boys to show for it! I am now a semi-regular on CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" and I am a fairly observant proud empowered Jewish woman! I think that about sums it up!
So, your research and thesis in UCLA focused on Prader-Willi Syndrome. What drew you to that research topic?
I have always been interested in people with special needs, and originally wanted to combine my interest in artistic ability in the brain with special needs by studying William's Syndrome (they are often quite musical). In my study of genetic syndromes of mental retardation, however, I came upon PWS, which had previously been studied by either psychologists or geneticists (it's the first human disorder of genomic imprinting). What I read really screamed at me: "This needs a neuroscientist to find the brain anatomy behind the behaviors seen!" SO I designed my thesis around that.
That is great! Now I have to ask, having been in the acting field from such a young age, what ideas or thoughts inspired you or motivated you to change roles and pursue a career in science?
I started acting in elementary school plays, and started professionally auditioning at 11 1/2. I never pictured myself a science person, but my biology tutor while I was in high school on "Blossom" was this amazing strong Jewish Persian dentistry student (she is now a successful dental surgeon) made me see that I could be a scientist, even if it didn't come as naturally to me as many of the boys in my school. I was raised to believe I could "do anything" but I found a great divide by sex in my academic environment, so I lacked support and confidence. She gave me that and I am forever grateful to her.
How was your family upbringing? Was your decision to pursue science influenced or supported by your family?
With English teachers for parents, I was raised to be a good strong writer, I was an excellent speller, and I was very organized (my mom is very type-A personality!). However, it wasn't until college that I had to make my own path and apply the skills they taught me for the Humanities to all of physics, chemistry, biology, biochemistry, and neuroanatomy... It was hard to make that switch but my parents were very proud of me and still are!
Do you feel Jewish values played a role in your decision to pursue science? Do you feel Jewish values have/had an impact on your work in science?
I know that being Jewish permeates everything I do; my grandparents on my mom's side were tailors in sweatshops when they came to this country, and my dad's father was an accountant; my dad's mother was a homemaker. I carry their struggles and love with me in my DNA, so I took a lot of pride in knowing that I was earning a Ph.D. and no one in my direct family had ever done that. This is the American dream as I see it: within 2 generations: a whole new world of possibility where there was once strife, devastation, and tragedy in the shadow of the Holocaust. I feel very privileged to be a Jewish scientist; it is a field we have had a huge impact on, and I feel the skills of our ancestors for inquiry, skepticism, faith, and the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge drive me. "Intellect is the glory of G-d," said Maimonides. That's my favorite Jewish/science quote!
You certainly wear many hats, Mayim! From actress to mother to author, scientist and more! How has your research career impacted your personal life, or maybe even vice versa? Do you feel your science education has enhanced other areas of your life, either in your role as a mother, actress, or author? Or perhaps all of them!?
I have chosen to work primarily as an actress now that I have 2 young boys, but I still teach in our homeschool community. I designed a Neuroscience curriculum for middle and high schoolers, and have also taught chemistry and biology. To be a teacher of any sort is what I love, and also to learn from my students, whether they are my kids or my pupils. The skills of research prepared me for a lot; and the humility you learn as a researcher is helpful especially as a mom- my kids humble me sometimes every minute! Two of my thesis mentors were amazing Jewish women and mothers, and they pushed me very hard to finish my thesis and make it something I would be proud of. They inspired me even when I disagreed with them, and those are the kinds of things I keep with me most from my research time. Being a scientist is to view the world very acutely and clinically. Sometimes I feel like a social pariah because I truly see the world from a Neuroscience perspective. But I have many friends who are artists who see the world in their own way as well. So I see myself as an artist of sorts, and my palette is everyone's Neuropsychiatric profile!
The age old question, how do you find your balance between work and family?
I don't sleep a lot, I have very little time to see friends, my husband and I don't go on dates, and I rarely slow down. Those are my secrets! In all honesty, my husband is home with our boys when I work, and we don't use any other childcare. So that works for us and allows me to work while our kids are cared for by my husband.
Perhaps your public image attracted some attention while you were working on your schooling. Beyond that, have you ever encountered difficulty in the science field because you are a female? And have you observed any changes toward women in science during the course of your studies and career?
I think there are a lot of challenges to women in almost every field that was previously dominated by men, and for me, I got to see how deeply ingrained patriarchy is from my research time and work in academics. Women are consistently in that bind of being "too brainy" or "too sexy" even in academia, I found. Women who attempt to downplay their femininity are often accused of being too masculine while those who choose to NOT downplay their femininity are often accused of using their "female attributes" to get ahead. This troubles me, and it troubles in greater society as well. For me, I found that academic life was simply not compatible with being my sons' primary caregiver for their formative years, but the decision many of my female colleagues make to "either" get ahead OR raise their kids is extremely difficult. Many women and scientific establishments are finding ways for women to try and get the best of both worlds, but no one can be in two places at once...so until we solve that, it may continue to be a challenge for women who also want to be parents!
Do you feel that being a woman in science is an inherent advantage or disadvantage for a career in science? Why?
I think women have as much to offer as men, and the challenges or disadvantages are products of circumstances, not intellect or ambition. Its personalities and society's expectations that are more of a challenge!
Life is full of ups and downs for everyone. Were there any challenges that you have overcome and learned an important lesson from that you can share with us?
I wanted to drop our of my PhD program at least 64,000 times. Sticking with it even if I wasn't entirely sure I knew what the journey would be like until the bitter end was a great decision. Obviously, finishing when you are struggling is not the best choice for everyone, but for me, it taught me a lot about trusting others who know me in times like that; since my own judgment of myself is sometimes skewed when under pressure!
You portray a very ‘laugh out loud’ funny character on the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory. As the neurobiologist, Amy Farrah Fowler, you are superb! Stepping into Amy’s character for a moment, what do you imagine she would say to aspiring female scientists?
Ha ha! I think Amy is probably not very in touch with her feminine side, as evidenced by almost every script they have had me in! I think she sees herself as equal intellectually to men (and usually superior!), but I think she also admits that she sometimes is a "slave to her baser desires," as Jim Parsons' character, Sheldon, once described her. It's seeing her get so stereotypically female that seems incongruous, but it really shows her complexity as a female scientist: serious, dedicated, and -yes- female indeed!
Mayim Bialik in character as Amy Farrah Fowler (opposite: Jim Parsons playing Sheldon Cooper). Acting the part of a neurobiologist is not too far of a reach for a neuroscientist!
As Mayim Bialik, do you have any other advice for students aspiring to become scientists?
If you find yourself not able to achieve one goal in science, be creative and talk to a variety of mentors and people in a range of fields. I originally wanted to go to med school, but I didn't have the grades. I wanted to do surgery, but I simply did not have steady enough hands! I didn't give up on science altogether; I found a subdivision of my field that allowed me to capitalize on MY skills and assets and had a fulfilling career that way.
Let’s dial back the clock to post-Blossom but pre-science education. If you could do this over again, would you? Is there anything you would change?
[This question is] not applicable... I fell in love with science during "Blossom!"
Who are/were your personal and professional mentors or role models that you have looked up to and what was their significance?
I was raised to revere my family and my ancestors. The heroes and heroines of the Torah and the scholars of Judaism inspire me in so many ways. Professionally, my tutor for biology, Dr. Rahbar, and the women on my dissertation committee who pushed me through, Drs. Nancy Wayne and Sue Carter, I owe so much to. Dr. Arnold Scheibel was my neuroanatomy professor at UCLA both as an undergraduate and graduate student. He is a living legend, and I have never seen a man so impassioned by science as Dr. Scheibel. He was truly an inspiration. I also had an incredible genetics professor, Dr. Jay Phelan, who was very hip and progressive in his teaching style. My husband and I also started dating while taking his course, so I am grateful to him for that too!
Thank you Mayim for taking the time to answer our questions. Your life story and experiences are truly inspirational! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I think you covered it!!! :-)
Mayim Bialik in VIDEO:
Blossom's Season 1 opening theme credits starring Mayim Bialik as Blossom Russo:
Mayim on The Big Bang Theory as Amy Farrah Fowler. This clip highlights just one advantage to having an education in neuroscience!
[Note: Clip can only be watched on YouTube. Follow the YouTube link after clicking play.]
An interview with Mayim Bialik on Attack of the Show. Mayim discusses Purim, acting, science jokes and more!
Kevin Waldman, volunteer for the SF-based Federation, interviewed Mayim Bialik at TribeFest 2011 in Las Vegas about her family, being Jewish, veganism, and parenthood.:
Mayim Bialik talks about her Jewish identity and how she balances being an actress with being a Jewish mother at TribeFest 2011: