Mayim Bialik: "It Doesn't Matter Where You Come From"

Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images.

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I have a PhD in neuroscience, which means I know more about the brain than you probably care to imagine. But when people tell me I’m 'so smart,' I cringe. My classmates were smart; I wasn’t. This stuff came naturally to them. I struggled with even the most basic concepts, but that did nothing to extinguish my passion for science. Here’s the thing: I knew what I wanted, and I refused to let anyone put me in a box based on what that they thought they knew about me from my time on TV.

I first fell in love with biology on the set of Blossom. When I was 15, I had a tutor who was hired just to get me through biology while I was filming the TV show. She was so passionate about science, so engaging, and willing and able to teach me the way I best needed to be taught. I knew after meeting her that I wanted to be a scientist, and she gave me the confidence and the skill set to do that after my Blossom contract ended.

And so, at 19, I walked off of America’s television screens and onto the campus of UCLA. But I struggled to keep up with my peers. Having no natural math or science ability meant I was always in tutoring rooms and counselor meetings; I was perpetually at office hours, and by day two of any class, the TAs knew me not because I had been on TV, but because I was incessantly asking for them to explain and re-explain things even the less competent among us had already absorbed.

As a late bloomer to science, maybe it was overambitious of me to want to go to medical school, but I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Not because I wanted to prescribe drugs; I wanted to know how people functioned and help them function better, which sometimes requires medication. Without consistent As, though, my dream of medical school vanished by my third year at UCLA. I remember thinking, My mother was wrong. In fact, I felt like the whole “feminist” movement was wrong — I couldn’t do anything I set my mind to simply because I wanted it badly enough. I had found something I was not good enough for.

It felt that the whole 'feminist' movement was wrong — I couldn’t do anything I set my mind to simply because I wanted it badly enough.

But I didn’t give up. Instead, I made a new plan: I entered graduate school with the hopes of being a research professor armed with a PhD. I was excited about this path; not only were my grades good enough for many schools, my parents were teachers my whole life, and being a professor felt like something I could spend my life loving. I entered the PhD program at UCLA, and I studied all of the time, as I had as an undergraduate. I also got stared at a lot. I got jeered at a lot. I tried to keep to myself, but this nose, this voice, this smile reminded everyone I was that famous girl they knew from TV.

At the end my first year, something completely unexpected happened: I failed two of my three qualifying exams.

When I was called into the department head’s office a few weeks later, I was unable to hold back my tears. She asked me what went wrong. In her thick French accent, she asked, “Is zere somesing in your eye?” I stared at her and calmly explained, “I’m crying.” (I remember wondering if once you get your PhD, they take away your ability to detect sadness in other human beings.) She handed me a tissue and sent me to a professor in the department who would oversee my makeup work and try to help me learn to think more like my classmates — more like a scientist worthy of a PhD from UCLA.

And so I sat in this professor’s office, and he looked so very disappointed in me. He looked over my exams as I sat there in my Elvis Costello shirt and Doc Martens, and he told me after a long dramatic pause: “I know what you come from.” He proceeded to tell me he knew I was on TV, and maybe this science thing isn’t for me; maybe I should go back to acting.

This time, I held back the tears and let him finish. I left his office and cried in the hallway. While I completed my makeup work with his supervision, I was never able to achieve the level of analytic proficiency that came so easily to my classmates. But I completed my degree four years later, pregnant as well as exclusively nursing a toddler I gave birth to in my fourth year of graduate school.

I had to fight tooth and nail to be on a level playing field with my classmates. Although I never felt completely confident, I loved the research I did.

The things that are unique about me make me a good science educator; I am enthusiastic, drunk on the glory of the scientific world, and I love inspiring young people. And the things that are unique about me as a woman make me a good scientist: I am organized, passionate, deeply invested in my impact on the world, and I’m a superb multitasker, as the XXs among us tend to be.

That professor may have known what I came from, but he could not dream big enough to believe in where I could go. To that professor, I want to say the following: You threw my past up to me like a Scarlet letter; insinuating that because you knew what I came from, you could know where I was going.

That professor may have known what I came from, but he could not dream big enough to believe in where I could go.

I proved you wrong and I will continue to do so.

I’m always planning to surprise you, to shake you up, and to use my uniquely female perspective and skill set to live my life as a scientist who used to be on TV and still is. I don’t have to fit into the box you wanted to put me in. I may not be perfect as a student or a professor or an actor or a mom, but I know one thing: I determine my destiny, not you. I decide what I can handle, not you. I am in charge of myself, and your judgment and fear is not mine.

I know what I came from better than you do. And I know what I can achieve, even if you don’t. I even wrote a book for young girls to give them the confidence to learn this younger than I did.

My hope is that if anyone ever calls a young woman into their office to say “I know what you come from,” that maybe I can inspire them to say what I wasn’t ready to; that what I come from does not determine my future. What determines my future is my ability to focus, to work hard, to never give up, and to prove you wrong.

That’s where this woman is going.

Mayim Bialik is an actress, neuroscientist, and author of Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular, available May 9 from Penguin Books.