When Rachel Nichols arrived at Columbia University in 1998 to study economics, the Maine native never imagined that five years later she’d walk the red carpet for her first movie role—as a high school newspaper reporter in Dumb and Dumberer. “It had never been something I thought I’d do,” says Nichols, 29, who speaks with the cool assurance of the hottest econ major you’ve ever met but wears her looks as heedlessly as a Down East–born ski bum, rumpled hair and all. “I thought that I’d have a briefcase-and-power-suit career.”
Nichols’s Wall Street dreams were put on hold, though, when a chance casting at a modeling agency during her sophomore year led to jobs for Guess and on the Paris runways. “I always knew I’d go back to school,” recalls Nichols of the semester she took off to work the catwalk for Chanel and Rochas. “Modeling was a means to an end, making money for graduate school.”
But modeling led to commercials and then to auditions, and though Nichols earned her Columbia degree, she ultimately headed to Hollywood instead of grad school. In 2005 she scored a recurring role on Alias. Series creator J.J. Abrams thought of her again for his upcoming Star Trek, in which Nichols plays one of Captain Kirk’s comely alien conquests. “There’s a built-in Yankee sensibility,” Abrams says of the actress’s sturdy work ethic.
The brainiac has now become one of the unlikeliest sex symbols in film, with roles in Star Trek and this summer’s G.I. Joe. But Nichols, who has settled in Los Angeles with her husband, Universal Studios producer Scott Stuber, insists she would have been perfectly happy had fate not steered her toward a glamorous silver-screen career. “I love my work, but I don’t think I would be slitting my wrists if I’d taken that job with Merrill Lynch,” she says, perhaps considering the current state of the economy before joking, “Well, maybe I would be.”