Natalie Angier ’78 is a New York Times science columnist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting. She is the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography, a National Book Award finalist that has been translated into twenty-four languages. Her other books, which have won numerous awards, are Natural Obsessions, The Beauty of the Beastly, and The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. A winner of the Barnard College Distinguished Alumna Award, Angier sat down with President Sian Beilock to talk about her cognitive science research, her College plans, and where to get the best bagels in the neighborhood.
Natalie Angier: It’s an honor for me to be speaking with the new president of Barnard College, Sian Beilock, whose parents, she tells us in her wonderful book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, are members of the baby boom generation, which happens to be my generation, which means that Dr. Beilock, for all her outstanding accomplishments, is obviously too young for the job!
Tell me, Dr. Beilock, how did you feel when you heard you had been chosen as Barnard’s next president? As though you’d won the Powerball lottery, or as though you’d been handed a couple of Number 2 pencils and told, “Go take the hardest test of your life, and no, you can’t use a calculator or call a friend”?
Sian Beilock: Do I have to pick just one or the other? [Laughs.] Well, I was thrilled to get to know Barnard during the interview process, and to know the devotion of the trustees, faculty, staff, and students to this great institution. And as a person who studies high-stakes situations, I realize that there are going to be both opportunities and challenges ahead. But I am excited to enter into them head-on and really think with the Barnard community about the next chapter.
You have this wonderful mix of scholarship and managerial leadership in your background. You come from the University of Chicago, where you were the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology. And I should add that named professorships are highly prestigious. And you were also the executive vice provost of UChicago. Let’s just start briefly with the second item, because a lot of us have no idea what a provost does, executive vice or otherwise.
As executive vice provost and an officer of the university, I helped support the academic and scholarly mission of the University of Chicago, and I basically oversaw several different initiatives and programs. These ranged from support for the university’s graduate students and postdocs to working with our libraries to University of Chicago Press to the way that the university thinks about itself as an urban research university.
Your academic research is focused on understanding and overcoming performance anxiety and why even talented and accomplished people may stumble when the stakes are high—that gymnast who trips during her Olympics routine, or the violinist who flubs the notes. Can you talk about a few key findings from that research, particularly how it might be relevant to the young women of Barnard?
My research is not just focused on how we get to be our best but also how we can prevent ourselves from flubbing on the test or missing that important shot when it matters the most or stumbling during an interview. I’ve focused some of my work on women and girls in math and science. I’m particularly interested in the pressures that we experience from our surroundings—for example, a female student interested in math and science who is aware of the stereotype (a wrong stereotype but a stereotype nonetheless) that boys are better than girls at math. I am also interested in the pressures we put on ourselves in high-stakes situations.
In my research, I have explored the psychological tools that can help young women (and folks in general) perform at their best. And sometimes it’s not just studying for the test—it’s actually getting used to performing in high-stakes situations. Even something as simple as jotting down your worries before a test can help download them from your mind so that they’re less likely to pop up in the moment. Sometimes it’s just knowing that those sweaty palms and beating heart are not necessarily signs you’re going to fail, but actually are important. It’s helping to shunt nutrients to your body and your brain so you can think and perform at your best. Thinking differently about how you can perform actually changes your performance.
Do you think that this is something that people can overcome on a permanent basis? Or do some people seem to get anxious every time, even though they’re accustomed to it?
For the most part, we all have “choke” moments. Whether it’s on an important test or interview, or even when we’re introducing ourself to someone, and they say their name and then all of a sudden we don’t remember it, and we flub what we’re saying—we have those moments all the time. We can learn to overcome them.
I don’t think we’re born with the skills to do this. We learn tools to help ourselves perform better in particular situations. And recognizing that young women, for example, might get some of their anxieties around math and science from the environment around them, we can think about tools to help, say, parents and teachers, overcome their own anxieties as well.
You’ve also published many papers on what’s called embodied cognition, which is the topic of your second book, How the Body Knows Its Mind. For example, you describe the use of gesturing as an aid to learning math—almost literally grasping a difficult concept with your hands. So what is embodied cognition, and how can it be something you can actually make practical use of?
The idea is that it’s not just our brain telling our body what to do but actually that our bodies and our surroundings have an impact on how we think and feel. So it’s everything from how we gesture and use our hands to how we move—this all changes the brain. We know a lot about how our body and what we do with it (e.g., exercise, body-centered meditation) actually changes our ability to focus and think. There are some lessons we can use to ensure that our students, who tend to be bold in their aspirations and everything that they take on, are also taking care of their mind and body—from a walk in the woods to yoga to exercise.
So you can actually improve cognition.
Yes. We know, for example, that being in nature actually changes our ability to focus. It enhances it. If you think of our brain as a muscle, [it makes sense that] our ability to focus wears out over time. And just like an athlete doesn’t practice the same muscle group all the time, we have to do that for our thinking as well. Being in a city environment where you never look at nature, you’re always on your phone, can be taxing psychologically. Remembering to look out the window at that tree or taking a walk down Riverside Park can be important for helping students focus and perform at their best.
Even something as simple as spending time in Central Park makes a huge difference to survivability in New York.
Yes, and it turns out actually that just looking at pictures of nature can be beneficial to essentially reboot our thinking. You don’t even have to be in nature.
Tell us why and how you made the transition from scholarship to administrative work at the University of Chicago.
It turns out that as any good faculty member does, I like advocating for my own ideas. But I’m also really excited to advocate for institutional ideas and other people’s good ideas. And as an administrator, I have the ability to do that. I love being able to listen to different individuals, whether they are faculty, staff, students, or alumnae, and then work with them to help push an institution forward. And it’s thrilling to me to be in a position to help put our good ideas together as a collective.
Are you planning to continue research, or are you going to just focus on running Barnard?
Well, I’ll always be a cognitive scientist. In fact, yesterday I gave a talk to the Summer Research Institute students who are doing work at Barnard and Columbia with faculty members over the summer. It will always be a part of my life. And I use [my background as a scientist] in how I think about working and leading an institution.
That’s great. It’s good to keep at least one hand in your first love. Barnard is, of course, a women’s college, which some people may consider an anachronism in today’s world, but they’re grievously mistaken. You, though, have a coeducational background at the University of California [San Diego], Michigan State, and Chicago. So why did you want to come to Barnard, and what do you see as the role of a women’s college in the twenty-first century? Why is it still necessary?
I’ve always been interested in understanding and developing the tools that we need to succeed, and I think it’s especially important for young women in our society to have the psychological tools to perform up to their potential. I see Barnard as a place where we can help ensure that young women are getting the academic preparedness as well as the mindset to go out and pursue their passion, whatever that is. And so being in an atmosphere where I can help think about how we do that for the next generation is exciting to me.
And frankly, we have the best of all worlds here. We have an academically excellent, small women’s college associated with a major research university, with the city as our playground. And so I couldn’t think of a more opportune place to help think about educating our next swath of doers and thinkers and changers.
You wrote in Choke about how students who go to women’s colleges actually end up doing better in a lot of ways, even though they may not necessarily realize the reasons this is so. Can you talk a little bit about that?
We know as psychologists that seeing people who are like you succeeding has an impact on your attitude about whether you can succeed. There’s research showing that being at a women’s college and seeing women in leadership roles—from faculty members to administrators—helps young women think about their own ability to succeed and about women’s ability to succeed in general.
One thing that I also hope to talk to the students about are the times that I failed. About the times that I didn’t end up where I thought I was going to end up. That there’s not one preordained path to success, and that it’s important to think about opportunities and take them when they come.
Do you feel that one of the biggest mistakes of your life was not going to Barnard as an undergraduate?
[Laughs.] You know, this is a fantastic institution. And I think if I had to do it all over again, this would be a place where I would really thrive.
Do you feel that the subliminal message that got out after this last election was kind of a blow to young women?
I think that if we set ourselves up to never fail, we’re going to be disappointed. We have to look around us, to look at women who have had success in a variety of different situations, and figure out what our own path is. And understand that our path is going to change. And understand that perhaps we don’t know what it is.
So how do we equip ourselves? We have an excellent liberal arts education. We learn how to question. We learn how to challenge assumptions. We learn how to listen. And we use that wherever we go, to take in data, to make new decisions, and to take paths that we wouldn’t have expected.
I can’t think of a more important time to advocate for young women—in all sorts of positions. And I think that we can take recent events and use this as another example of how we don’t always get everything we want, in the way that we want it, and it’s about figuring out what our next step is.
Speaking of that, what is your first order of business as president of Barnard? Can you discuss any of your big plans, outrageous fantasies, for the College?
[Laughs.] You know, what I’m going to do a lot of, to begin with, is listen. I want to understand the views of alumnae, students, parents, faculty, and staff to really get an idea of what they think is fabulous at Barnard, what could be worked on, where we are reaching our potential, and where we still have movements and moments to grow.
And I think together with the faculty, with the students, there’s really some exciting next steps for Barnard, in terms of further enhancing what people know about the College and what our students do when they leave. We have fabulous alumnae in all sorts of fields, contributing to society, to communities, in so many ways. And to better understand their experiences and what they loved about this institution will help me work with the community to think about next steps.
It’s true that a lot of people are not really that familiar with Barnard. They’ve heard of Columbia, but not necessarily of Barnard. So, are you trying to enhance kind of the wider public, even international, image?
Well, I think that has changed. We have record numbers of applications. We have so many qualified and talented young women who want to come here. But there’s still more to do. And I do think that internationally, this is an institution that would be appealing to lots of young women.
Barnard has a good reputation for its commitment to diversity. Is that something you’re going to be trying to further? To make sure it becomes even more representative?
At its core, Barnard has a reputation for academic excellence. We give our students, I think, an unparalleled education. And in order to continue that academic excellence and actually have it be at the core, you need diverse perspectives, and that requires diverse lived experiences. And to the extent that you have those, you’re challenged, and everyone thinks better. And so we must ensure that not only our students but our faculty and staff bring varied perspectives to the table. Because it makes all of us better.
One thing that Barnard has done in the past few years is to beef up its science and technology facilities. Is that something you’re planning to continue? I mean, as a scientist…
Well, as a scientist, I feel strongly about ensuring that young women who want to go on into STEM have the ability and the resources to do that. Of course, that doesn’t preclude them also from getting experience in the humanities and arts more generally. I was actually surprised to learn that 34 percent of last year’s graduating class were science majors. That’s fantastic. But, most importantly, we need to make sure that young women who are interested in STEM fields also understand the value of the humanities—that being a good scientist means having humanistic knowledge and experiences as well. And, of course, vice versa.
So, tell me a little bit about yourself personally. Where are you living? Have you found a favorite neighborhood yet?
I live right next to Barnard. And the neighborhood is fantastic so far. I’m just exploring the city, and I guess you never stop exploring it. But the ability to run to the park or take a walk next to the river and get great pizza down the street—that’s exciting.
Where do you think the best bagels in New York are?
Oh, I know this is a trick question. So I’ve been told that it’s Absolute Bagels, and I’ve been there, and they’re very good. But as a scientist, I need to collect the data so that I can be sure that I’m coming to the right conclusion. And I know you can’t just take one sample.
Where do you think the best bagels are?
I probably like Murray’s and Brooklyn Bagel the best. So, what are some of your hobbies and interests? What do you do when you’re not working? Which is probably not very often but…
I play the violin. I had played since I was a young girl, and I just started again four years ago. I run. I do yoga. And I like to eat. I think that’s about it.
Are you a serious runner? Do you run in races?
No, I run basically to eat.
You run to eat! [Laughs.]
I was an athlete growing up in California. I played soccer, and I played lacrosse in college. You know, I’ve always been interested in athletic situations. But I hung up my cleats, and now I run at a slower pace.
Were your parents encouraging of you becoming a scientist?
Yes. My parents wanted to give me opportunities to discover different careers. And I was very fortunate that they were able to provide that for me. I grew up in a family of lawyers, and I decided that I would go to law school, because that’s what they did. And my mom spent one summer taking me out to lunch with every unhappy lawyer she knew so at least I would see I had options and choices. [Laughs.] But they’ve been always very encouraging of the path that I’ve gone down.
And they come to see you when you give talks.
Yes, it’s very embarrassing sometimes. [Laughs.] My mom’s going to come to Convocation. She’s already planned it on her calendar.
Is there anything that people would be surprised to learn about you—aside from the fact that you play violin?
You know, you look at people who have risen to a particular position or been successful as a scientist or as a writer, and you think, “Gosh, there must have just been this path that they went on, and they knew where they were going.” I think it’s important to remind those who are coming after us of all the blips we had. You probably had some failures in your career. And I like to talk about my own missteps. Because it really underscores this idea that it’s about figuring out the path through all the obstacles. And so I do a little bit of “me-search” as well as research. I guess that’s what I would say to that.
What failure do you tell people about?
Well, I had one of the worst soccer games of my life in front of the national coach for the Olympic development program. Let’s see, what else? In my first chemistry class in college, I was so ready for the first midterm test, and I bombed it. I got the worst grade out of I think 400 people. And then I started going to office hours. I figured out how to study differently. And I figured out how to practice under stress. And I ended up getting the highest grade on the second midterm.
Oh, that’s a nice comeback story. Do you like chemistry now?
I always liked it. When you enter college, there’s often an adjustment about figuring out how to think about information in new ways. I didn’t have it all figured out from the outset, and that’s okay.
That’s a lesson I think everyone at Barnard learns.
It’s about learning how to learn through all the varied situations you’re going to encounter in your life.
Do you like to give inspirational talks about this perspective?
I speak to teachers, coaches, executives, and students about what is really the science of human performance. And I talk a lot about what we know about how to put your best foot forward when it matters most. I don’t know if it’s inspirational or prescriptive. But I do think that cognitive science gives us a window into understanding the brain and body and how we can use psychological tools to perform better.
So this is my last question. Woodrow Wilson became president of Princeton University in 1902 at the age of 45. A decade later, he was elected president of the United States. You’re just 41. Any chance of a POTUS Beilock in our future?
[Laughs.] Never say never.
Oh, excellent! I like that answer.