Mia Reyes purchased a ticket to attend a live taping of her favorite television show as soon as she turned 18.
“The Big Bang Theory” audience was already at full capacity when she arrived in August, and she was turned away. One month later on Sept. 29, the aerospace engineer student would visit the set again – this time by invitation from the show’s cast and crew.
Reyes is one of five first-year students selected as this year’s recipients for “The Big Bang Theory” scholarship. The Big Bang Theory Scholarship Endowment honored Reyes, Steven La, Amy Shao, Jonathan Shi Jr. and Mateen Ul Hassan based on their UC applications for their achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Each student will receive $10,000 per academic year and a visit to the set to meet the show’s crew and seven principal actors, all of whom donated money to the award. While some of the scholars watched the show religiously prior to receiving the award, others gained an appreciation for the nerdy characters and script after the fact.
The endowment, which first awarded the scholarship to 20 students in 2015, will now honor five UCLA students each subsequent year indefinitely, and La said a campus organization comprised of and organized by all 25 current scholars is in the works.
A Chemical Bond: Passions for STEM and television
Reyes has been a fan of the “The Big Bang Theory” since she discovered the show in middle school. In addition to watching the show during weeknights, she also collected “The Big Bang Theory” trading cards and owns a T-shirt bearing the program’s most recognizable catchphrase: “Bazinga!”
“It showed that with science and STEM, you can be really articulate, and the wording can be really beautiful,” Reyes said. “I loved the script.”
La, a mathematics of computation student, also encountered the sitcom in middle school during his seventh-grade math class. Whenever his teacher was ahead of schedule on the curriculum, he showed episodes of shows like “Supernatural” and “The Big Bang Theory” in class.
“The Big Bang Theory” altered La’s educational and social interests, he said. Watching the characters’ calculated conversations inspired La to focus his academic interests on math and physics instead of medical school. While he strived to fit in with the cool crowd in middle school, La said he let his geeky guard down by high school and found a new group of friends who shared his passion for STEM.
“’The Big Bang Theory’ is what started it all,” La said. “From then on, I realized, ‘You know what? It’s okay to be a nerd.’”
La immersed himself in physics fan-fiction and books like “Physics of the Impossible,” by Michio Kaku and “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking in between schoolwork and late night viewings of the show. In high school, La began to circumvent the prescribed math curriculum, crafting his own equations from his outside reading to use on assessments.
“I went against the books, I went against the rules,” La said. “And I liked that.”
But being a fan of the series was not a prerequisite for becoming a scholar of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Prior to receiving the honor, Shi, who prefers drama shows, only watched the sitcom whenever it happened to be on TV. Shao, a neuroscience student, had not seen a single episode.
Regardless of each student’s previous dedication to the program, or lack thereof, La, Reyes, Shao and Shi all received a mysterious notice in spring, informing them of a scholarship for which they had never applied. The fifth honoree, Hassan, did not respond to requests for an interview.
The scholars were selected based on their involvement in STEM and financial need.
Reyes had already committed to San Diego State University for its affordability by the time she got her email. After verifying the legitimacy of the distinction, she called her grandmother, who is helping her pay for her college education, to relay the good news. Reyes then rescinded her enrollment to SDSU and committed to the now financially-feasible UCLA.
“I know how stressful it was for the whole family to have to spend thousands of dollars on my education,” Reyes said. “It’s really a lifesaver to be able to go to school without the stress of finances.”
In preparation for their set visit, Shao and Shi, a microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, studied up by watching episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.”
“While I was watching it, they hadn’t met me, but I was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to meet you,’” Shao said. “It was unbelievable.”
The inner workings of the show fascinated Shi, who was surprised to see the apartment and hallway siphoned into adjacent boxes as opposed to the continuous environment seen on TV.
“I really just enjoy seeing how such a real thing in the TV can seem so fake in real life,” Shi said.
Though Shao and Shi were not as familiar with the characters as La and Reyes, they said they were grateful to meet their sponsors in person.
After they watched the cast rehearse an episode on set, show-creator Chuck Lorre invited the scholars to join the cast and crew on the main set.
Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, verbally expressed his excitement at the opportunity to meet the “smart kids” as the scholars took the stage, Reyes said.
The students, cast and crew posed together for a photoshoot in Sheldon’s and Leonard’s living room, and then remained there for a casual chat around the sofa. La said he bonded with Mayim Bialik, a UCLA alumna who plays Amy Farrah Fowler, over a local donut shop they had both visited in La’s hometown of San Jose.
At one point in the conversation, La gestured to the books behind the couch and asked if they were real. Bialik replied that she had used one of the neuroscience books while studying as an undergraduate student at UCLA, La said.
Bialik’s UCLA connection made her less intimidating than the rest of the cast and offered relatable points of conversation, Reyes said. The actress and neuroscientist joined the scholars to film an 8-clap during the tour.
La noticed a whiteboard full of math equations while observing the set, which he knew came from the mind of UCLA physics and astronomy professor David Saltzberg, the show’s science consultant.
Saltzberg, who saw the 2016 scholars off on their way to the set, wishes UCLA could relieve more STEM students of financial stresses. But he is happy that “The Big Bang Theory” scholarship can at least aid a select few, he said.
“(STEM students) are going to be contributing members of society for their whole lives,” Saltzberg said. “It’s not right that we saddle them with this terrible debt upon graduation.”
For Reyes, the honor has provided her a surreal experience to both attend her preferred school and meet her favorite cast members, whom she can now officially call her sponsors.
“The show is amazing — the cast, the producers, everyone — for not only creating this show that inspires young minds to pursue STEM, but for also actually actively giving back to the community,” Reyes said.