December 21, 2016
Growing up in the 80s, women pursuing higher education degrees in STEM fields were few and far between. Even today, women hold a disproportionately low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. One of the main factors behind this gender gap is the lack of mentors and role models for women to enter the field.
Mayim Bialik, the Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominated actress known for her role as neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on the CBS hit show The Big Bang Theory, fell in love with STEM in her youth and went on to complete her Ph.D. program in Neuroscience at UCLA in Fall 2007.
Between the demands of a Hollywood star and the responsibilities of a mother of two, she continues to use her influence as a neuroscientist to encourage younger generations to enter STEM.
Recently, Mayim Bialik hosted the final demo event for the Capital One C1 Coders program, where middle school students in Fairfax, VA, learned to develop mobile apps using MIT University APP2 Inventor. Since the program’s inception in Fall 2014, over 2,500 students around the country have participated in the program and have created 500 different mobile apps.
In an interview with Mayim Bialik, she talks about STEM advocacy, her mentors and educational journey, and what she might have built if these coding opportunities were available during her time in the classroom.
What was the reaction from the kids when you walked out on stage?
I was the surprise guest revealed to the students who are graduating from the C1 Coders program and putting a public face that a lot of these kids may be familiar with is neat. They were playing a completely tech-related, coding-related jeopardy game and honestly it made the mom in me get really excited to hear kids so excited about giving the right answer about coding programs. It was adorable, and that’s a level of sophistication that they can and should master.
What was your message to the kids?
My message was that I’m very excited to be here because I don’t just play a scientist on TV, I am one in real life and have a very personal and vested interest in promoting the beauty of STEM education, especially Capital One C1 Coders program which is really getting kids when they are most likely to learn these skills and retain it so that they have the tools to succeed in most jobs in the 21st Century.
How can coding skills help younger generations be change agents in the tech industry?
When I was in middle school the notion of coding wouldn’t have even occurred to me – sure enough when I got to college I had to learn to code – I wish I had those skills earlier. This C1 Coders program is teaching them how to think. Not just what to think or why to think, but how to think, how to approach a program, how things line up, what it means and how you can actually apply it to turn a thought in to an app. I mean it is unbelievable, that’s exactly why I’m here.
Through your higher education, did you see more women dropping out of STEM? Any thoughts around that issue?
Yeah, I mean, there are many reasons, historical and sociological why women are underrepresented in those fields and it is that exact reason that I am not teaching and active as a neuroscientist, and my full time career is being a scientist on TV.
A lot of what I do in my spare time is to work for STEM advocacy and the future edge programs and the other programs that Capital One does sometimes do target females. I think that the earlier we can teach girls and boys, the earlier we can get this type of information floating around their heads, give them the basic skills and also show them that it is a creative and exciting way to be part of the STEM world. The notion of a lonely scientist or laboratory is not what any of our middle schoolers or our elementary schoolers need to be thinking about when they think about careers.
What’s exciting to you when you see these kids learning to code?
It gives me chills because the idea that we might be equipping students at a younger and younger age when they are more likely to learn and to retain it is so powerful. They will be able to compete in those fields and it opens up a whole other world of careers that girls and a lot of kids are not always exposed to.
Can you talk about the importance of mentors, and did you have a particular mentor that helped you progress in STEM?
I always thought math and science was for boys. Those subjects were really hard for me and I thought that I wasn’t good at them and would never be. I really white knuckled my way through all of math and science and I cried through so many word problems.
I had the worst time ever and when I was working on Blossom which was from the time I was 14 to 19 I had separate tutors for all of my subjects and when I was 15 a biology tutor was hired. She was a veteran getting her dental degree at UCLA and she was the first female mentor I had. She was the first person who worked with me one-on-one and not only inspired a love and a passion for science but gave me the skill set and prepared me for how difficult it would be because this did not come naturally to me.
How have you seen the education landscape change?
Education has changed so much since I was in school in the 70s and 80s. We now know that everybody learns differently and it took me until high school to find the ways that I would best learn science and math, but the truth is, I struggled all the way through college and all the way through grad school. I had to study four times as hard as everybody else it felt like, just to score a B. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally but there is a reason that I pursued this and there’s a reason I love it and why I taught neuroscience, and why I make it my life’s work to do some advocacy in addition to being a TV scientist.
I understand that, are you still a minimalist when it comes to tech in the home or tech in general?
(Laughter) I happen to be. I do have an iPad that was given to me as a gift which my boys have a couple of games that they play very infrequently and the other day something needed an update and I almost started crying because I didn’t know what to do [and] I can’t troubleshoot. I am the only one with a phone and they probably can work it that better than I can.
If you had access to the same STEM opportunities that these kids have today, what do you think you might have built?
When I started grad school, there was a very small subsection of our program for neuroengineering and that is probably where I would have ended up. There were only two people in that section and everyone had their own classes with their fancy professors, but they were designing technology that was used for deep brain stimulation. It’s only gotten better with 3D printers and all the [technology advancements] – that world is so explosive. Maybe I wouldn’t have become [Amy] on The Big Bang Theory, but I love my job.
Photo courtesy of Mayim Bialik
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