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Secret Science Nerds: Natalie Portman Will Psych You Out

There’s a good chance you know Natalie Portman from somewhere, be it her time in the Star Wars movie universe, her Oscar-winning performance in the dark ballet movie Black Swan, as Jane Foster in the Thor movies—though she likely won’t be back for more Thor—or one of her many other films, but did you know that Portman is also a published researcher in the field of psychology and has an ErdÅ‘s–Bacon number of 7?

Since her filmography dates way back to 1994 with her breakout role in Léon: The Professional, Portman was accustomed to juggling screenplays and studies throughout her high school and college years. She even skipped the U.S. premiere of 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in order to finish studying for her high school’s final exams. Perhaps it was the academic success achieved by her father, Dr. Avner Hershlag (an Israeli fertility specialist and Chief of the Center for Human Reproduction), that led to Portman’s own pursuit of the sciences. In fact, her first scientific paper was co-authored by Portman—while still in high school—alongside scientists Ian Hurley and Jonathan Woodward. Titled “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” it was entered into the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search and made it all the way to the semi-finals.

Portman leveraged her academic interests towards the pursuit of an A.B. in psychology from Harvard University, earning the bachelor’s degree in 2003. During this time, she also filmed Where the Heart Is, Zoolander, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and Cold Mountain. In 2002, she also told the New York Post that she might leave the movie business entirely to become a vet or a clinical psychologist:

“I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.”

As if backing up that statement, Portman contributed to a memory study within Harvard’s Psychology department around that same time. Clearly the Oscar-winning actor’s confidence allowed her to dabble in the academic and artistic while balancing both worlds. However, Portman confessed to her own self-doubt in a 2015 commencement address at Harvard and offered sage words of advice on how to battle through it.


And battle through it she did, earning her first Oscar in 2010 for her performance in Black Swan, something for which her years studying ballet and modern dance at the American Theater Dance Workshop and attending the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts prepared her—but just barely. She still required a rigorous training routine to pull off the performance. To her Harvard professors, neither the hard work nor the success came as a surprise:

“It was very clear when she was a student that she is a very determined person and capable of focused effort over a sustained period,” former Harvard Psychology Professor and Dean of the Social Sciences Stephen M. Kosslyn told The Crimson, regarding Portman. “She is now demonstrating the results of that determination and focus.”

Now that you know about Portman’s particular set of psych skills, who else would you like to see us cover as our next Secret Science Nerd? Let us know in the comments!

Images: Harvard University, Fox Searchlight Pictures

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