Delivering the keynote speech at the Karen E. Wetterhahn Science Symposium on Wednesday, President-elect Sian Leah Beilock said people who are nervous going into a pressure-filled situation can still succeed.
“I’ve spent a career studying why we sometimes fail to do things that we might otherwise have the skills to do,” Beilock said during her talk at the Hanover Inn ballroom on academic performance under stress.
“We believe we understand a little bit more from these studies about how anxiety relates to performance. How you perform is not necessarily a function of just what you know. How you prepare really matters and how you think about yourself in the situation matters too,” Beilock said.
A cognitive scientist and the outgoing president of Barnard College, Beilock is one of the world’s top experts on the physical and psychological factors that affect how people perform under duress, whether they’re taking tests, speaking in public, or competing in athletics.
By using math anxiety as a gateway, her research seeks to understand what happens in stressful situations. What became clear was that students who were anxious were likely to be reluctant to actually practice their problem-solving skills before a test. Experiments revealed that the tendency for avoidance partly stemmed from physical changes in the brain that evoked negative emotional reactions when someone was simply told that they were about to do math.
“I think it’s also exciting to understand that even if you’re anxious about something, it makes you uncomfortable, that’s not a sign you’re going to fail. Maybe it’s exactly the sign you need to dig in, to study with other people, to ask for more practice problems, and to take it to the next level,” she said.
Where the research intersects with her role as president is in thinking about how to get people to approach situations that they might otherwise be uncomfortable with, she said. Embracing the idea that part of learning is seeking discomfort, that sweaty palms and a beating heart are a sign of readiness to tackle challenges, can counter anxiety and improve performance, said Beilock.
Beilock also believes that creating brave spaces in classrooms, where students are empowered to make mistakes, rather than safe spaces where they retreat into their comfort zones, will make them more willing to take on difficult tasks.
More than 130 people, many of them students participating in the symposium, a celebration of undergraduate research in the sciences, attended her talk.
Beilock said she was glad to be able to make a quick trip to Hanover to participate in the event before she starts as Dartmouth president on June 12.
“When I heard about the symposium and the person it was honoring and the fact that we would be celebrating and getting to see so many of the important undergraduate research projects that had been done, I just had to say yes,” said Beilock, who also talked with students about the poster displays of their research.
The recipient of a National Academy of Sciences Troland Research Award and a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, Beilock earned her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and doctorate degrees in psychology and kinesiology from Michigan State University.
She has authored two critically acclaimed books and 120 peer-reviewed publications and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Association and a member of the National Academy of Kinesiology and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Before going to Barnard, Beilock spent 12 years at the University of Chicago, where she was the executive vice provost and the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology.
Students said they were glad to see the incoming president and hear about her work.
“As a college student, President Beilock’s research really resonates and impacts how I think about performance and preparation,” said Arshi Nagra ’26, who interacted with Beilock at the undergraduate poster session that followed the keynote.
“It was nice to learn about the research of the incoming president,” added Kaira Shlipak ’26. “I look forward to how she might use it on campus to lower student stress.”
Also at the symposium, first place in the 2023 Christopher Reed Science Competition, sponsored by the Dartmouth Chapter of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society, was awarded to Eva Legge ’22, for biology work on how “access to belowground networks modulates seedling survival under different forest management types.”
Second place in the Reed competition went to Amanda Calhoun ’23, for earth sciences research on “the influence of pH on crenarchaeol abundance: origins of an enigmatic archaeal lipid.”
And third place was awarded to two students, Jack Duranceau ’23, for astronomy work on “discovering and characterization of exoplanetary system TOI3353” and Maia Madison ’23, for biology research on “towards a universal flu vaccine: guiding the immune response with glycans.”
In Women in Science Project awards, Annika Nikhar ’26 received the Barbara E. Crute Memorial Internship; Madeleine Saraisky ’26 and Brennah Slaney ’26 won WISP Research Engagement Awards; and Kaira Shlipak ’26, the Carol Folt Research Scholarship Award.
The Award for Library Research for the Sciences, sponsored by the Dartmouth Library and by the Friends of the Dartmouth Library, went to Ash Chinta ’26 (first year/sophomore category) and Alyssa Fayerman ’23 (junior/senior category).
The hourlong ceremony, with keynote and student awards, is viewable on Dartmouth’s YouTube channel.