Mayim Bialik: Saving the Class of Covid-19

Sept. 9, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that individual initiative and original ideas could make the desert bloom. That dream has been realized: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) is now the fastest growing research university in Israel.

“(BGU) is now the engine that drives the entire Negev region of Israel,” said Mark Mendelson, CEO of the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

From its humble start in Bedouin tents and ramshackle buildings in 1969, the university now boasts over 20,000 students on three campuses in Beersheva, Sde Boker and Eilat. The university is internationally renowned for its cutting-edge research and development.

Most recently, BGU scientists have pioneered a coronavirus testing procedure that is faster and more efficient than any in the world, able to test up to 48 people at once.

In early August, BGU launched “Save the Class of Covid-19,” a global campaign to raise $5.25 million for student financial aid during the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a drastic decrease in people coming to study at BGU, Mendelson told The CJR. An estimated one in five BGU students is at risk of delaying their studies due to financial stress, and some are now unable to pay for basic needs.

Mayim Bialik

To help alleviate those hardships, the Canadian Associates of BGU are holding a national and virtual “Big Bang” event on Wednesday, Sept. 9 featuring award-winning actress, neuroscientist and author Mayim Bialik, star of the hit TV show The Big Bang Theory. Sen. Linda Frum will moderate the event, which benefits BGU’s “Class of Covid-19” effort.

Special guest will be Prof. Danny Chamovitz, President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A presenting sponsor is the Azrieli Foundation.

The event is sold out and registration is closed.

Bialik earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, and in Hebrew and Jewish studies in 2000, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007. She is a board member of a variety of Jewish philanthropic organizations. She also writes weekly for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com.

The CJR recently caught up with Bialik, who is busy raising her family and celebrating Jewish life.

As a science academic, what are some key messages you will convey at the BGU event?

I love to talk to Jewish communities all over the world and I especially appreciate North American support of universities in Israel right now. I don’t tend to talk about what I think other people should do with their lives or their observance. I like to share my story, with all of its imperfections and all of the doubts and questions I have, and I especially like to talk about (how) being a scientist and being a person of faith do not produce conflict for me. 

How are you and your family doing during the pandemic?

We are, thank God, doing OK. We have essentially remained home. Our kids definitely are used to schooling at home, since they have never been in school and have been homeschooled their whole life. We see my mother at a safe distance and that’s been really hard to not be able to spend more time with her in general. My kids are definitely playing more video games than I would like them to, but I’m basically trying not to nag them, which seems to be something that I find easy to do during the pandemic. Our anxiety is definitely elevated, as it is for a lot of people. 

What can you share with our readers about your Jewish background?

My parents are first generation Americans who were born during World War II in the Bronx. My mom’s parents only spoke Yiddish in the home and she was raised Orthodox. My father had [an] assimilated experience and moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the 1950s, where he was raised in a Reform congregation. My grandparents are from Poland, Hungary and Ukraine. I was raised in Los Angeles in a Reform synagogue, but there were a lot of remnants of my mother’s orthodoxy in my childhood.

I became more observant in college at UCLA and I have always been a very strong Zionist. A lot of my family lives in Israel, throughout the country, from the West Bank to Tel Aviv. I have a minor in Hebrew and Jewish studies from UCLA and have been a devoted student of Talmud for about 15 years. I learn two or three times a week. While I don’t wave the flag of modern orthodoxy, I tend to align with most of the leanings of liberal modern orthodoxy.

Can you explain your career trajectory from actress to scientist?

I was on a television series [NBC’s Blossom] from the time I was 14 to 19 and I had a biology tutor when I was 15 who opened my mind and heart to the possibility of being a scientist. I fell in love with genetics and after Blossom ended, I went to college to study science.

You focused on Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder in people with a genetic condition called Prader-Willi syndrome, or PWS. Can you explain why you choose this path?

As a vegan in the field of neuroscience, there are not many lines of research available if you don’t want to work with animals. One of the populations studied in the neuroscience department at UCLA is individuals with PWS. I had always wanted to work with a population of individuals with special needs and I also have a strong interest in mental health, so it was a really perfect thesis topic for me.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being a mother to a 12- and almost 15-year-old son. I definitely don’t do it perfectly but I’m the best mom they’ve got.

What new projects are in development?

I am starting a new series for Fox called Call Me Kat, which I am executive producing with Jim Parsons, who played Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I will also be starring in it and it is based on the BBC series Miranda. We should be starting production next month and it is very exciting because we have 13 episodes already ordered. We focus on a very unusual woman who, at 39, does not have it all but still has an amazing life running a cat café. It is a really funny show and I’m so excited to get back to work.