After graduating from SUNY Potsdam in 2013, Amy Smith made her way to Tufts University. She was the corresponding author on a study that was recently published in the November 2016 issue of Science, one of the world’s top scientific journals. A graduate student in psychology at Tufts University, Smith and senior author Dr. Ayanna Thomas found that learning by taking practice tests can protect memory against the negative effects of stress.
What was your major/minor?
I double-majored in mathematics and honors psychology.
Did you conduct research with a professor or complete an internship?
I did both! During my senior year, I completed an honors thesis research project in psychology under the guidance of Dr. Heather Beauchamp. This was my first opportunity to design an experiment from scratch, collect data, analyze data, and write and defend a thesis. This experience prepared me well for getting my Master of Science degree in experimental psychology, and was certainly the experience that got my foot in the door for grad school. I also did the Wellness Advocates internship program offered through the Counseling Center during my junior and senior years.
Was there one class that you took at SUNY Potsdam that really stands out as having inspired you?
I can narrow it down to two classes that were particularly inspirational: “Intro to Environmental Studies” with Dr. Michael Wilson, and “Research Methods in Psychology” with Dr. Heather Beauchamp. “Intro to Environmental Studies” fundamentally changed me as a person—I left that class with a lot more self-awareness. “Research Methods” taught me how exciting and fulfilling it is to be a scientist, and inspired me to pursue psychology as a major and ultimately a career.
How did you decide to attend graduate school?
I’ve known that I wanted to be a professor since high school, and thus knew I’d have to get a Ph.D. eventually. I initially thought I’d get a Ph.D. in math, but taking Research Methods with Dr. Beauchamp changed my mind. After that class, I knew I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. in experimental psychology and become a psychology professor.
What did you do to prepare for applying to graduate school?
Aside from the usual preparations (working hard for high grades in classes, taking the GRE, researching grad programs), the biggest step I took to prepare myself for applying to grad school was conducting an honors thesis research project in psychology. The thesis took a year and a half from start to finish, and was the primary reason I was accepted into a Ph.D. program straight out of undergrad (and my graduate advisor has attested to this).
What is your research focus area in your studies at Tufts University?
In my research, I examine the effects of stress on memory. In research with older adults (65+), I examine how different psychological stressors like stereotyping and social evaluation affect one’s likelihood of producing false memories. In research with young adults (18-24), I examine ways in which memory can be strengthened against the deleterious effects of psychological stress.
You are the corresponding author on a recent study published in Science showing that retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Can you tell us more about this study?
Over a dozen previous studies examined the effects of stress on memory. Nearly all of these studies yielded the same finding: stress impairs our ability to remember information. I and my colleagues recently showed that this is not actually always the case. In our study, participants who used conventional methods when studying information (e.g., re-reading) did indeed show memory impairment later on when they were stressed. However, another group of participants who took several practice tests when studying information did not show memory impairment when under stress. Essentially, our take-home message is this: using highly effective study strategies (like self-testing) when you initially learn information can help strengthen your memory against stress.
What’s the takeaway for SUNY Potsdam students hoping to prepare for a big exam?
When you study for exams, test yourself! It’s as simple as reading your notes, then pushing them aside and forcing yourself to recall as much information as you can with no prompt. If you miss some details, do the whole process over again. Flashcards are a great way of doing this. This self-testing is formally called “retrieval practice” in psychology, and has been shown to be an insanely effective technique for strengthening your long-term memory. And, as I recently found in my research, retrieval practice can even create memories that are durable to stress.
What do you hope to do after you complete your degree at Tufts?
After I graduate from Tufts, I hope to either complete a one- or two-year postdoctoral teaching fellowship, or jump right into the workforce and join the faculty at a college in the greater-Boston area.
What advice do you have for current Potsdam students?
If you’re sure you want to go to grad school, start getting relevant experience (research, internships, etc.) as soon as you can. If you’re interested in grad school but not ready to commit right away, don’t stress. The majority of people in my program at Tufts did not come to grad school straight out of undergrad. Most of them either held jobs for a few years between undergrad and grad school, or worked as research assistants for a few years. If I had to guess, I’d say the average starting age for Tufts grad students is 25 or 26. So, again, absolutely don’t stress if you’re not sure whether you want to go to grad school.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
For students interested in going to grad school, I highly recommend getting in touch with a current grad student in the relevant field and seeking his/her advice about the application process. I was completely in the dark when I applied to grad school, and would do it completely differently now. I’m sure department chairs could make good recommendations as to who students could reach out to, but if all else fails, my door is always open!