It wasn’t his music—nor an unusual hobby—that brought Brian May, lead guitarist for the iconic rock band Queen, to the attention of The Science & Entertainment Exchange. Before he became known for “We Are the Champions” or “We Will Rock You,” May studied astrophysics at Imperial College in London.
Success in the world of rock music meant that May had to put his passion for science on hold. But in 2007, he returned to academia, earning a PhD complete with a dissertation bearing the title, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” He also wrote a book, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, and became a frequent guest on the popular BBC astronomy program “The Sky at Night.”
May’s unusual path to stardom in two unrelated fields got us wondering what other celebrities have spent time in a classroom studying STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
Although the public isn’t usually aware of the academic achievements of celebrities, two actresses—Mayim Bialik and Danica McKellar—have received publicity for their scholarship. Bialik, the star of the sitcom Blossom (1990-1995), earned a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA in 2008. She currently is a season regular on The Big Bang Theory, playing a neuroscientist and close friend of Sheldon Cooper.
McKellar has also appeared on The Big Bang Theory, though she’s best recognized for her role as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. McKellar, who graduated from UCLA in 1998 with a degree in mathematics, co-authored a paper while in undergraduate school and has a theorem, the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem, named after her. She has also written three books that encourage young women to pursue an interest in math: Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math Without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail, Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss, and Hot X: Algebra Exposed!
• Heroes actor Masi Oka has a degree in computer science and mathematics from Brown University and also worked at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic as a digital effects artist.
• Art Garfunkel, half of the singing duo Simon and Garfunkel, has a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia University and took courses in mathematics education at Teachers College, Columbia. He also taught math at Litchfield Private School in Connecticut for a year in the early 1970s.
• Sopranos actor Dan Grimaldi has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Fordham University, a master’s degree in operations research from New York University, and a PhD in data processing from the City University of New York. He’s currently teaching at a community college in Brooklyn.
• Felicia Day, best known for her role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, graduated summa cum laude from the University of Texas at Austin with a double major in mathematics and music performance.
• Legendary comedy singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard and taught math at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of California at Santa Cruz (where he also taught musical theater). One of Lehrer’s most famous song parodies is “The Elements,” in which he set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
• Sandra Tsing Loh, a writer, actress, performance artist, and radio commentator, has a degree in physics from Caltech.
• Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill creator Mike Judge received a degree in physics from the University of California at San Diego in 1985
• Child actor Charlie Korsmo (Dick Tracy, Hook) received a degree in physics from MIT. He subsequently graduated from Yale Law School and is currently teaching law in New York.
• Musician Wendy Carlos, who popularized the use of a synthesizer as a musical instrument (A Clockwork Orange,Switched-On Bach) double majored in music and physics at Brown.
• Action star Dolph Lundgren, most recently on screen in The Expendables, has a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at MIT, but chose to continue acting.
• Dylan Bruno, who played FBI agent Colby Granger on the CBS series Numb3rs, received a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering from MIT.
• British comedian, actor, and writer Rowan Atkinson has a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Queen’s College, Oxford.
• Tom Scholz, founder of the rock band Boston, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT. He also invented a guitar amplifier and worked for the Polaroid Corporation as a senior product design engineer and holds a number of patents.
• Best known as a B-movie director, Roger Corman has a degree in industrial engineering from Stanford.
• Jazz great Herbie Hancock earned degrees in both music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.
• TV talk show host Montel Williams received a degree in general engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
• Actor Donald Sutherland double majored in engineering and drama at Victoria College of the University of Toronto.
• Lisa Kudrow, best known for her Emmy-winning role onFriends, has a degree in biology from Vassar College. She worked in medical research while honing her comedy skills after hours.
• Drake Hogestyn, who’s been on Days of Our Lives since 1986, doubled majored in microbiology and applied science at the University of South Florida, expecting to become a dentist.
• Ally Walker, who starred in the series Profiler and Tell Me You Love Me, received a degree in biochemistry from the University of California at Santa Cruz. She worked as a researcher on a genetic engineering project in preparation for UCLA Medical School until she was spotted by a Hollywood producer in a restaurant.
• Dexter Holland, front man for The Offspring, has a master’s degree in molecular biology from the University of Southern California
• Greg Graffin, lead singer for the group Bad Religion, double majored in anthropology and geology at UCLA and earned a PhD in evolutionary paleontology from Cornell