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From actress to inspiration

Alexandra Kilpatrick | Monday, February 6, 2012

While lounging around my friends’ house the other night, we decided to check Netflix’s Instant Queue out of pure boredom. We had just watched “A Clockwork Orange” and needed something slightly less vexing or cerebral as an endnote to a lazy movie night.

Much to our delight, we landed on “The Wonder Years.” If any of you haven’t had the pleasure of watching this fine blast to the past, I suggest you log onto Netflix immediately and watch an episode. It’s the perfect mixture of fictional adolescent trials and tribulations and a realistic retrospective on the Vietnam War era.

The show features protagonist Kevin Arnold, a teenager growing up in the nameless American suburbs during the war, along with his family, his nerdy yet endearing friend Paul Pfeiffer and his friend-turned-love interest Winnie Cooper.

While watching an episode in which Kevin and Winnie get into a quarrel, my friends and I began discussing where the actors are now. We were all impressed by the fact that Danica McKellar, who portrayed Winnie, had since become a mathematician and published three New York Times bestsellers pandered to adolescent girls about the merits of succeeding in math.

Focused on her math career, McKellar studied mathematics at UCLA and graduated with highest honors in 1998. During her undergrad years, she coauthored a scientific paper with Professor Lincoln Chayes and fellow colleague Brandy Winn, which resulted in the “Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem.”

I’m sure most of you have heard of a Bacon Number. As in the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Similar to the “six degrees of separation” concept, this game rests on the assumption that any Hollywood actor can be linked to actor Kevin Bacon in six steps or fewer.

But have you heard of an Erds-Bacon number? Probably not. That’s because McKellar is one of the few people with the number, which combines a Bacon number with an Erds number (the degrees of collaboration on mathematical papers between a person and prolific modern math paper writer Paul Erds). Among other celebrities with the esoteric number are Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Natalie Portman, who authored a psychology paper during her time at Harvard.

In a world filled with mindless reality TV stars and child actors-turned-drug-addicts, I find it more than refreshing that some child stars grow up to live well-adjusted lives. Not to belittle McKellar’s acting career by any means.

In fact, McKellar still acts on the side and has recently appeared in episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory,” as a Cal Tech graduate student no less. If nothing else, McKellar is simply proof that not all child stars grow up to become meth addicts or spontaneously shave their heads in times of distress. But even more so, she’s an accomplished writer, mathematician and actress, an excellent role model to young women and someone who should be acknowledged more so than the countless reality TV stars of the world.

Contact Alexandra Kilpatrick at akilpatr@nd.edu

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.