The Intel Science Talent Search is considered the nation’s most elite and demanding high school research competition, attracting the crème de la milk-fats-encased-in-a-phospholipid-and-protein-membrane of aspiring young scientists. Victors and near-victors in the 69-year-old contest have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry, two Fields Medals in mathematics, a half-dozen National Medals in science and technology, a long string of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants — and now, an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role. On Sunday night, the gorgeously pregnant Natalie Portman, 29, won an Oscar for her performance as Nina, a mentally precarious ballerina in the shock fantasy “Black Swan.” Among the lesser-known but nonetheless depressingly impressive details in Ms. Portman’s altogether too precociously storied career is that as a student at Syosset High School on Long Island back in the late 1990s, Ms. Portman made it all the way to the semifinal rounds of the Intel competition. For those who know how grueling it can be to put together a prize-worthy project and devote hundreds of hours of “free” time at night, on weekends, during spring break and summer vacation, doing real, original scientific research while one’s friends are busy adolescing, the achievement is testimony enough to Ms. Portman’s self-discipline and drive.
Yet there’s more. While carrying out her investigation into a new, “environmentally friendly” method of converting waste into useful forms of energy, and maintaining the straight-A average she’d managed since grade school, Ms. Portman already was a rising movie star. She’d been in films directed by Woody Allen, Tim Burton and Luc Besson, appeared opposite Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Drew Barrymore and I’m getting tired of typing celebrity names here. She took on the major role of Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequel trilogy that rocketed her to international fame. And then she went on to Harvard University to study neuroscience and the evolution of the mind. “I’ve taught at Harvard, Dartmouth and Vassar, and I’ve had the privilege of teaching a lot of very bright kids,” said Abigail A. Baird, who was one of Ms. Portman’s mentors at Harvard. “There are very few who are as inherently bright as Natalie is, who have as much intellectual horsepower, who work as hard as she did. She didn’t take a single thing for granted.”
Ms. Portman is one of a handful of high-profile actors who happen to have serious scientific credentials — awards, degrees, patents and theorems in their name.