Science Leadership Conference

National Public Radio broadcast its "Science Friday" segment from the Science Leadership Conference (SciLC) on Dec. 2. At National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., host Ira Flatow lead panelists-most of whom were psychologists-in a discussion hour on gender differences in cognitive ability and another on how stress affects health. Two classes of D.C.-area high school students and SciLC participants attended the broadcast and asked the panelists questions.

The first hour of the broadcast included topics such as whether boys are genetically predisposed to be better at math than girls. Panelists that hour included Temple University psychology professor Nora Newcomb, PhD, who shared her finding that boys tend to perform better than girls at spatial relations tasks. However, with practice, that gap can be bridged, she has found.

"Most people…[think] if it's biology, there's nothing we can do about it, and if it's environment, then we can do lots about it. And that just doesn't follow," she said. "It's biological that our hair gets gray, but we still dye it."

During the second hour of the show, panelists including Harvard University psychology professor Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD, discussed the physical and psychological effects of stress. Although prolonged stress can harm the body and even prematurely age it, research shows that stress isn't always harmful, she said. Positive stress, also known as approach stress, "is associated with resiliency, better cognitive performance and maybe even protection from disease," said Mendes.

The same taxing situation may cause good or bad stress depending if a person feels equipped to handle it, she noted.

The inclusion of psychology topics is particularly notable because Science Friday broadcasts tend to highlight sciences such as physics and biology, says Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science. APA's Science Directorate worked with the National Science Foundation's Division of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences to suggest potential topics and panelists for the show.

APA's Science Directorate plans to build on the success of the broadcast by producing a CD containing the show and copies of the studies discussed to distribute to high school psychology teachers.

The broadcast may have educated SciLC participants as well, says Breckler, by demonstrating how psychologists can inform the public about their research.

"We had a reception afterward and the place was abuzz," says Breckler. "People were talking about it, engaging with one another about strengths and weaknesses of the broadcast."

-S. Dingfelder

Further Reading

To listen to the broadcast, visit www.sciencefriday.com/pages/2005/Dec.