May 05, 1997 12:00 PM

ON A BRILLIANT SUNDAY AFTERNOON, a student in cutoff fatigues, bright blue spandex top and magenta-streaked hair is lounging on the steps of UCLA’s chemistry building when a visitor asks directions to the School of Dentistry. “It’s down that walk,” she’s told.

“Uh, thanks,” says the visitor, staring. “By the way, you know who you look like? Blossom.”

Smiling hesitantly, Mayim Bialik says nothing. Though she is a full-time student, a second-year neuroscience major who juggles courses such as calculus and organic chemistry with a job in the neurology lab, the 21-year-old actress, who made her name as the precocious adolescent on the 1990-’95 NBC sitcom Blossom, is still, in a sense, public property. Though she often settles into comfortable anonymity on South Campus, home to competitive science majors, North Campus is another story. Last year, liberal-arts students there would shout “Blossom!” when they spotted her across a quad. “I don’t not like it, but I don’t crave it,” she confides. “It catches me off guard.”

Although Bialik seems to be the only neuroscience major with a Screen Actors Guild card, she isn’t the only campus celebrity. She occasionally runs into Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, a freshman, and Jaleel White (Family Matters’ Urkel), an economics major. “Jaleel and I agreed that it’s weird—you can never just be a student like everybody else,” she says.

Of course, Bialik has always stood apart from her peers. The younger child (brother Isaac, 25, is a graphics designer) of Barry Bialik, a middle-school English teacher, and his wife, Beverly, a former nursery-school director, Mayim declared in preschool in Los Angeles that she wanted to be a doctor. Only later did she set her sights on acting—making her film debut in a horror movie called Pumpkin-head. A role playing the Bette Midler character as a child in the 1988 film Beaches led to several TV spots and, finally, to Blossom. Writer-producer Don Reo had written a pilot about a savvy teen living with her divorced father and snared Mayim—then 13 and a student at L.A.’s Walter Reed Highly Gifted Junior High School—for the lead. “She was just a ball of unlimited potential,” says Reo. “She was so smart at 13 that the sky seemed to be the limit.”

Ironically, it was on the Blossom set that Bialik acquired her passion for science. Firoozeh Rahbar, a UCLA student who was her biology tutor, helped her dissect frogs and took her on field trips to the university’s chem lab. “She opened my eyes,” says Bialik. “She really showed me that the kind of emotion you have for a lover or for literature, you can also have for science.” When the series ended and Bialik, then 19, dropped acting for college, her parents urged her to slow down for a while. “We [still] say, ‘It’s not like you have to keep the ratings up; you can relax now,’ ” says Beverly. “But that’s not her nature. She has to excel at whatever it is.”

When Bialik (who was also accepted at Harvard) entered UCLA in 1995, she petitioned Dr. Eran Zaidel, a psychobiology professor, for a job as his research assistant. “I just said, ‘Please, can I sweep up in your lab?’ ” She eventually landed a job with Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neurologist. “She’s extremely dedicated,” says Dr. Iacoboni, who invited Bialik to accompany the team that presented the lab’s research project at a conference in Italy last summer. “She’s the best undergraduate student I’ve ever had.”

Bialik claims to be “a total geek” whose idea of fun is cleaning beakers, but she leads a full life away from the lab. She heads a campus discussion group for Jewish women and takes classes in Brazilian jujitsu, which she describes as “street fighting, basically.” She shares her off-campus apartment with a cockatiel and spends weekends with her boyfriend, a twentyish artist whose name she prefers to keep to herself. She also does voice-overs on animated series including Extreme Ghostbusters, but for the moment she’s happy to keep Hollywood on hold. “I’m very out of the business,” says Bialik. “The attention I gave my acting career is the attention I’m giving my science life. It’s like there were two paths. I think I picked the harder one,” she adds with a laugh, “but I picked the one more pleasing to my soul.”

MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles

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