24 Aug 2017

Sian Beilock Wants to Help People Perform at Their Best

Sian Beilock Wants to Help People Perform at Their Best
Sian Beilock
APA Fellow Sian Beilock is the new president of Barnard College in New York City. (Photo: Jason Smith)

Sian Beilock, PhD, a psychologist, fellow of the American Psychological Association and the brand new president of Barnard College in New York City, sees her move into the top job at a "stellar" liberal arts college for women as a natural progression in a career that has focused on "helping people perform at their best."

Beilock was previously at the University of Chicago for twelve years as a psychology professor and the principal investigator with the Human Performance Lab there. By the time she left, she was an officer of the university as well. As a researcher, Beilock says she will "continue to collaborate with folks in Chicago. I'll always be a cognitive scientist."

She has written two popular books on the mind–body connection, Choke (2010, Free Press) and How the Body Knows Its Mind (2015, Atria Press). Her work has explored questions raised by her own early experience with "choking" during important performance events, and now represents a whole array of investigations into how to help people — from small children to parents to elite athletes — harness their potential to learn and excel.

In 2014, Beilock took on the additional role of vice provost for academic initiatives at Chicago, moving up last year to executive vice provost, a "high-striving leadership role, and I loved it," she says. In that role, in 2015, she created UChicago Grad, which offers graduate students and postdocs a variety of programs, events, workshops, and one-on-one coaching on presentation skills and interviewing, with an eye to helping them find good jobs not only in academia, but also in industry, nonprofits and government. Last year, she was named  the Stella M. Rowley professor of psychology.

"There's this false dichotomy, this idea that students need one set of skills for an academic career and another for industry,” she says. “They're a lot of the same skills, which we work to help our students acquire — to articulate a viewpoint, listen, take in new information and adjust their thinking based on what they've learned, to write and understand data — skills that are important no matter what endeavor they pursue."

Beilock says the same is true for undergraduate students like her new charges at Barnard, which was founded in 1889, one of the original Seven Sisters, elite women's colleges associated with the once all-male Ivy League. Barnard, with about 2,500 students, is affiliated with Columbia University.

"The liberal arts span across the humanities, the social sciences, the biological and natural sciences, and what this type of education gives students is the ability to think. The world is changing, and our role is to get them out with the tools they need in their first job, second job, eighth job, and graduate school," she says.

Beilock thinks her background in psychology will help her. She received her bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and doctorates in kinesiology and in psychology from Michigan State University in East Lansing. Success in life depends, she says, "not just on knowledge or skills in a particular area, but also on having the psychological tools to put your best foot forward when it matters most. I hope that idea has influenced some to think about not just the math lesson but also how you feel about that lesson, and not just how you're practicing that swing on the golf course but how you're training your mind. That's what I've tried to work on throughout my research career, and I think a lot of those lessons will be helpful in the next chapter."

She has "always been interested in women and girls" in her research, "in understanding some of the psychological barriers that keep them from achieving up to their potential," she says. Research shows that seeing women in leadership roles encourages girls to be optimistic about their own chances to succeed in those pursuits, and that's something Beilock says she will be happy to represent and foster at Barnard.

"Barnard is the best of both worlds, a stellar, small women's liberal arts college working in tandem with a large research university,” she says. “Our women take classes with Columbia students. Our faculty members are tenured" at both institutions. "Students have the ability to choose the path they want to take. It's really a singular experience."

Another initiative she worked on in the provost's office at Chicago was the oversight of UChicago Urban, a pan-university effort that seeks to enhance engagement between the academy and the city that surrounds it. Beilock, whose role at Barnard also carries the title of dean at Columbia University, hopes to reflect that experience in her new job as well — investigating "how research around urban education is actually implemented in urban schools, and what we learn from teachers and others in urban schools about the types of research questions we should be asking. That was fascinating work for me. I'm thinking of Barnard too as a part of the great city of New York."

She is also excited about her own research over the last few years on how to cut through young students' math anxiety. As a researcher, she uses "converging methodologies" in her work — behavioral performance measures like reaction time and accuracy, concrete stress markers like salivary cortisol, and neuro-imaging.

Parents who are anxious about math can transmit those anxieties, she says. "Anxious parents also tend not to want to do math with their children, and don't talk about it as much. We've published work over the past couple of years that shows that giving parents opportunities to do math in a fun and interesting way with their young children — maybe not just bedtime stories, but also bedtime math — can change how much children learn in math across the school year. It's especially true for parents who tend to be most anxious about math. I think it's really exciting that we can provide tools for children, and for parents to support their children in achieving up to their ability," Beilock says.

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