The intersection between pop culture and science is very small. However, it does exist. It turns out that a few celebrities have also written scientific papers and have been involved in research. Though not likely companions, academia and pop culture don’t have to be separate; they can coexist and even complement each other.

Lisa Kudrow

The actress, known best as ditzy Phoebe from the sitcom Friends, has dabbled in psychology research. Her father, Lee Kudrow, was a neurologist; he founded the California Medical Clinic for Headache. Lisa worked on a project with him on how whether left or right-handedness affects migraines. People who were left or right handed didn’t differ from each other. Both Lisa and Lee suffer from frequent migraines, so that could have sparked their interest in the study. The paper was published the year that Friends debuted on TV.

Messinger, H. B., Messinger, M. I., Kudrow, L., & Kudrow, L. V. 1994. Handedness and headacheCephalalgia 14, 64–67.

Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame wrote a psychology paper. Image credits:

Tim Duncan

The retired basketball star from the San Antonio Spurs wrote a psychology chapter on the ego when he was an undergraduate at Wake Forest University. He, along with Mark Leary, examined narcissistic behaviours and other peoples’ reactions to it. They found that egotism is created by a belief that one is better than others, trying to make a positive impression, and a feeling of inferiority.

Leary, M. R., Bednarski, R., Hammon, D., & Duncan, T. 1997. Blowhards, snobs, and narcissists: Interpersonal reactions to excessive egotism. In R. M. Kowalski (Ed.), Aversive interpersonal behaviours (pp. 111–131). New York, NY: Plenum.

Tim Duncan knows all about ego. Image credits: Keith Allison.

Kristin Stewart

The actress and now director helped to write a paper associated with the short film that she has directed, called Come Swim. It is about a man searching to satisfy a deep thirst, using impressionism and realism. She used a complicated digital technique called neural-style transfer to superimpose her sketches onto video footage. The technique uses convolutional neural networks to alter video footage in real time. You show the algorithm an image and then teach it to apply that technique to other images. The paper is a case study of applying this technique to film.

Joshi, B., Stewart, K., Shapiro, D. 2017. Bringing Impressionism to Life with Neural Style Transfer in Come Swim. ArXiv e-prints.

Neural style transfer involves showing an algorithm an image (like the plant on the right) and showing it a new image (like left) to be styled like the first image. Then you get a Willy Wonka that is styled like a plant. Image credits: Hvass Laboratories/YouTube.

Natalie Portman

The actress, best-known for playing Queen Amidala in Star Wars, graduated from Harvard in 2003 with a B.A. in psychology. She famously missed the premiere of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace so she could study for high school exams. When she was a student, Natalie was a co-author on two scientific papers. One was published from her high school work in 1998 and shows how biodegradable waste could generate energy. The other was published in 2002 and was from her psychology studies on how memory affects haemoglobin concentration in the brain. Her name on the articles appears as Natalie Hershlag, her birth last name.

Hurley, I., Hershlag, N., Woodward, J. 1998. A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar. Journal of Chemical Education 75, 1270.

Baird, A.A., Kagan, J., Gaudette, T., Walz, K.A., Hershlag, N., Boas, D.A. 2002. Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared SpectroscopyNeuroImage 16, 1120–1126.

Stay in school, kids. Image credits: Soletron.

Dr. Dexter Holland

Bryan Keith “Dexter” Holland, the singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the punk rock band The Offspring also has a penchant for microbiology. Bryan studied his bachelor and master’s degree in microbiology at the University of Southern California and he also started a PhD but delayed it to focus on the band. Starting in 2013, Bryan started another PhD at the Keck School of Medicine, which he was awarded this year on May 12. He published a paper during his PhD where he identified microRNA-like sequences in HIV. These sequences might help the virus by evading the immune responses of the hosts and helping it to persist.

Holland, B., Wong. J., Li, M., Rasheed, S. 2013. Identification of Human microRNA-Like Sequences Embedded within the Protein-Encoding Genes of the Human Immunodeficiency VirusPLoS ONE 8, e58586.

The rocker Holland looked at microRNAs in HIV (pictured) as part of his PhD. Image credits: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library.

Dr. Brian May

Another rocker awarded his PhD later is Brian May, the lead guitarist of the band Queen. He started his PhD at Imperial College studying reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of the dust. Brian left his PhD after 4 years of work but still published two papers on his observations. He re-registered in 2006 and handed his thesis in a year later. He used his previous work plus observations in the 33 years between his studies for the thesis. Luckily for him, little work had been done on the matter in the meanwhile and the topic had become trendy again recently.

Rowan-Robinson, M., May, B. 2013. An improved model for the infrared emission from the zodiacal dust cloud: cometary asteroidal and interstellar dustMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 429, 2894–2902.

Rocker AND astrophysicist, here visiting an observatory. Image credits: ESO/G. Huedepohl.

Dr. Mayim Bialik

Sometimes, life imitates art and sometimes it’s the other way around. Mayim Bialik plays the nerdy neuroscientist Amy Fowler on the sitcom the Big Bang Theory. Hey, she actually is a neuroscientist. She got a PhD from UCLA. Her 285-page thesis was on the hypothalamic regulation in patients with Prader-Willi syndrome, the leading cause of genetic obesity.

Bialik, M. 2007. Hypothalamic regulation in relation to maladaptive, obsessive-compulsive, affiliative, and satiety behaviours in Prader-Willi syndrome.

Dr. Bialik encourages other to follow a career in STEM fields. Image credits: U.S. Army illustration by Sandra Arnold/Released.

So here’s proof, science is cool!




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