Health, Science, and Society

Health, science, and society is a cluster of undergraduate and graduate courses, programs, and events that address the meaning of health and illness, advocacy for health and health care, and structures of medical and scientific knowledge. Courses and events are multidisciplinary, bringing together perspectives from the humanities, creative arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. Undergraduate students who are interested in health, science, and society are encouraged to take courses across the curriculum and to design interdisciplinary conference projects.

Over the past 25 years, as health and disease have been examined from social, economic, political, and historical perspectives, there has been an increased awareness of the ways in which definitions of disease are framed in relation to the values, social structures, and bases of knowledge of particular communities. Globalization has required us to understand health and disease as crucial international issues, and environmental health is increasingly seen to be a matter of policy that has significantly differential effects on different populations. Public talks and events are regularly scheduled to bring together undergraduate and graduate faculty and students to consider these questions of health, medicine, and scientific knowledge from a broad variety of perspectives.

This focus of study may be of interest to students interested in the health professions, including pre-med, nursing, or allied professions such as physical therapy, allowing them to combine courses in the natural sciences with explorations of the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Similarly, students in the arts and humanities who are interested in health and illness may find that incorporating science and social science into their educational program enables them to achieve a greater depth of understanding and expression in their work.

The health, science, and society program offers undergraduate students the unique opportunity to take advantage of Sarah Lawrence College’s nationally recognized graduate master’s programs in Human Genetics and Health Advocacy, both of which are the first such graduate programs offered in the country. Events and programs are also coordinated with the graduate programs in Art of Teaching and Child Development and in collaboration with the Child Development Institute.

2017-2018 Courses

Genetics

Open , Seminar—Fall

With the astounding diversity of life as we know it, it is shocking to see how unified we are by the molecules that encode life. The replication and transmission of genetic material is central to the continued existence of all organisms. In this course, we will discuss the replication of genetic material at both the molecular level and the chromosomal level in both mitosis and meiosis. In addition, we will discuss the expression of genes and how this highly regulated process controls the physical and behavioral features of an organism. We will also cover the technology that we have used to edit organisms at the genetic level and finally conclude with genetics at the population level. This class also involves weekly lab sessions that reinforce the genetics concepts learned in class with hands-on experiments.

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Forensic Biology

Open , Seminar—Spring

From hit television shows such as CSI, Bones, Dexter, and Forensic Files, to newspaper headlines that breathlessly relate the discovery of a murder victim’s remains, and to Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, and other real-life courtroom cases, it is clear that the world of forensic science has captured the public's imagination. Forensic science describes the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems and encompasses an impressively wide variety of subdisciplines and areas of expertise, ranging from forensic anthropology to wildlife forensics. In this course, we will specifically focus on the realm of forensic biology—the generation and use of legally relevant information gleaned from the field of biology. In an effort to move beyond sensationalism and the way it is portrayed in the public media, we will explore the actual science and techniques that form the basis of forensic biology and seek to understand the use and limitations of such information in the legal sphere. Beginning with the historical development of forensic biology, selected topics will likely include death and stages of decomposition, determination of postmortem intervals, the role of microorganisms in decomposition, vertebrate and invertebrate scavenging, wound patterning, urban mummification, biological material collection and storage, victim and ancestral identification by genetic analysis, the use of DNA databases such as CODIS, and the biological basis of other criminalistics procedures, including fingerprinting and blood-type analysis. Finally, we will consider DNA privacy and Supreme Court rulings, including the Maryland v. King decision (2013) that established the right of law enforcement to take DNA samples from individuals arrested for a crime. In all of these areas, the techniques and concepts employed are derived from some of the most fundamental principles and structure-function relationships that underlie the entire field of biology. No background in biology is required; indeed, a primary objective of this course is to use our exploration within the framework of forensic biology as a means to develop a broader and more thorough understanding of the science of biology.

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Disease Ecology

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course explores infectious diseases—disease caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other parasites—through the lens of ecology. Thinking like a disease ecologist means asking questions about disease at different scales. Rather than just considering interactions between an individual host and a parasite, we will look at disease at the population, community, and ecosystem levels. A disease ecologist may ask questions such as: How does a disease make a jump from one species to another? Why are some environments so conducive to disease transmission? How can we make better predictions of where and when new diseases may emerge and develop better management strategies to combat them? A disease ecologist may even consider infected hosts as ecosystems, where pathogens feed on hosts, compete with one another, and face off with the host’s immune system or its beneficial microbiome. Mathematical models of disease transmission and spread will be introduced. We will consider examples from plant, wildlife, and human disease systems.

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An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open , Lecture—Fall

Mathematical prerequisite: basic high school algebra and geometry.

Correlation, regression, statistical significance, and margin of error. You’ve heard these terms and other statistical phrases bantered about before, and you’ve seen them interspersed in news reports and research articles. But what do they mean? And why are they important? And what exactly fueled the failure of statistical polls and projections leading up to the 2016 US presidential election? An introduction to the concepts, techniques, and reasoning central to the understanding of data, this lecture course focuses on the fundamental methods of statistical analysis used to gain insight into diverse areas of human interest. The use, misuse, and abuse of statistics will be the central focus of the course, and specific topics of exploration will be drawn from experimental design, sampling theory, data analysis, and statistical inference. Applications will be considered in current events, business, psychology, politics, medicine, and other areas of the natural and social sciences. Statistical (spreadsheet) software will be introduced and used extensively in this course, but no prior experience with the technology is assumed. Conference work will serve as a complete practicum of the theory learned in lecture: Students working closely in small teams will conceive, design, and fully execute a small-scale research study. This lecture is recommended for anybody wishing to be a better-informed consumer of data and strongly recommended for those planning to pursue graduate work and/or research in the natural sciences or social sciences.

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Mathematical Modeling I: Multivariable Calculus

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: successful completion of Calculus II or the equivalent (a score of 4 or 5 on the Calculus BC Advanced Placement exam).

It is difficult to overstate the importance of mathematics for the sciences. Twentieth century polymath John von Neumann even declared that the “sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which…describes observed phenomena.” This two-semester sequence will introduce students to the basic mathematical ingredients that constitute models in the natural and social sciences. This first course in the sequence will concentrate on extending the concepts and tools developed in single-variable calculus to work with multiple variables. Multivariable calculus is a natural setting for studying physical phenomena in two or three spatial dimensions. We begin with the notion of a vector, a useful device that combines quantity and direction, and proceed to vector functions, their derivatives (gradient, divergence, and curl), and their integrals (line integrals, surface integrals, and volume integrals). The inverse relationship between derivative and integral appearing in single-variable calculus takes on new meaning and depth in the multivariable context, and a goal of the course is to articulate this through the theorems of Green, Gauss, and Stokes. These results will be of particular interest to students pursuing physics, engineering, or economics, where they are widely applicable. Students will gain experience developing mathematical models through conference work, which will culminate in an in-depth application of seminar ideas to a mathematical model in the natural, formal, or social sciences, based on student interest.

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Mathematical Modeling II: Differential Equations and Linear Algebra

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: Mathematical Modeling I or the equivalent (college-level course in multivariable calculus).

At the center of many mathematical models, one often finds a differential equation. Newton’s laws of motion, the logistic model for population growth, and the Black-Scholes model in finance are all examples of models defined by a differential equation; that is, an equation in terms of an unknown function and its derivatives. Most differential equations are unsolvable; however, there is much to learn from the tractable examples, including first-order equations and second order linear equations. Since derivatives are themselves linear approximations, an important approach to differential equations involves the algebra of linear transformations, or linear algebra. Building on the study of vectors begun in Mathematical Modeling I, linear algebra will occupy a central role in the course, with topics that include linear independence, Gaussian elimination, eigenvectors, and eigenvalues. Students will gain experience developing mathematical models through conference work, which will culminate in an in-depth application of seminar ideas to a mathematical model in the natural, formal, or social sciences, based on student interest.

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First-Year Studies: Health, Illness, and Medicine in a Multicultural Context: A Service-Learning Course

Open , FYS—Year

What is the difference between disease and illness? Do people in different cultures manifest the same illness similarly? Has the biomedical model resulted in better health for all? Why do women get sicker but men die quicker? This course offers an overview of theoretical and research issues in the psychological study of health and illness within a cultural context. We will examine theoretical perspectives in the psychology of health, health cognition, illness prevention, stress, and coping with illness. We will also examine the interrelationship between humans and the natural and built environment. A lifespan approach examining child, adolescent, and adult issues will provide additional insight. Issues of sexuality, gender, race, and ethnicity are a central focus, as well. This class is appropriate for those interested in a variety of health careers or in public health. Conference work may range from empirical research to bibliographic research in this area. The community partnership/service-learning component is an important part of this class. We will work with local agencies to promote healthy and adaptive person-environment interactions within our community.

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Ways of Knowing Each Other: Psychotherapeutic Models and the Restoration of Freedom

Open , Seminar—Year

What are the narratives of people who have no reason to fear being negatively judged? We will review therapeutic transcripts such as these: 1. “Can I be what I have never been?” (comment by Alice in first therapeutic session) “I no longer wonder what I ought to be but only what I can be.” (comment by Alice in 10th therapeutic session) Is this progress? 2. Therapist: “How do you know your relationship is over?” Client: “Our conflicts are not interesting!” Is this an excellent measure of the health or illness of a relationship? 3. The client has terminal cancer. Client: “My family believes I am in denial.” Therapist: “And you?” Client: “For me, dying is just my final experience. I won't give it any more respect than that.” Is this wisdom or denial? 4. Break up of a relationship: Client: “I feel so guilty for hurting him.” Therapist: “For no longer loving Jeff?” Client: “Exactly...” Therapist: “But wasn't loving Jeff a pleasure?” (“Uh huh”) “If so, then why would you feel guilty over losing a pleasure?” Does the therapist make good sense to you? Over the past century, the concepts of “wisdom” and “ignorance” have been replaced by “health” and “illness.” Vanity has been replaced by narcissism and our pretensions by insecurities. We are asked to accept the seeming paradox that a person “can always make something out of what is made of him.” We consult psychologists and psychiatrists rather than philosophers to become cured rather than educated. The cure is presumably accomplished through a series of conversations between patient and doctor, but these are not ordinary conversations. Despite more than a century of practice, there remains little agreement among these practitioners of “health” regarding what the content of the conversations should be or the proper roles of doctor and patient. Moreover, the relationship between one psychologist and patient is vastly different from the relationship of another psychologist and client. Consequently, the patient who sees a psychoanalyst has a very different kind of experience from a patient who seeks the help of a person-centered therapist or a behaviorally-oriented psychotherapist. This course will examine the rules of conversation that govern various psychotherapeutic relationships and compare those rules with those that govern other kinds of relationships, such as those between friends, teachers and students, and family members.

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Food Environments, Health, and Social Justice

Open , Seminar—Fall

With obesity and diabetes rising at alarming rates and growing awareness of the social determinants of health and disparities in food access, researchers and policymakers are rethinking the role of the environment in shaping our diets and health. This course takes a collaborative approach to investigating some of the key issues guiding this area of research and action. Students will critically review literature on food environments, food access, and health inequalities and explore how modes of food production and distribution shape patterns of food availability and inequities in the food system. Students will use photography and video to examine foods available in the neighborhoods where they live, review media related to the course themes, and use a time/space food diary to reflect on the ways in which their own eating habits are influenced by the social and material settings of their day-to-day lives. The course concludes with students writing letters to the editor/op-eds to a news outlet of their choice, with suggestions about how to move forward with action to improve food access, public health, and social justice in the places where they live. Students may have the opportunity to engage in community-based service learning and/or research, with the possibility of conference projects resulting from that experience.

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The Synapse to Self: The Neuroscience of Self-Identity

Open , Seminar—Fall

It has long been believed that “you are what you remember.” Autobiographical memories are central to how we construct self-identity and experience a sense of self-continuity. They figure prominently in every aspect of our lives: earliest childhood recollections, developmental milestones and achievements, personal loss and public tragedy, and the breakdown of these memories across the life span. Conversely, self-identity plays a key role in how memories are selectively encoded, retrieved, or forgotten. Although these complex relations are far from being understood, neuropsychology and neuroscience research are illuminating the neural regions and networks underlying autobiographical memories and self-related processing. In this course, we will examine neuropsychological research—looking at how the loss of autobiographical memory impacts the integrity of identity such as in cases of amnesia and Alzheimer’s disease. We will also discuss how different memory systems support self-continuity and the capacity to “mentally time travel” back to the past and into the imagined future. We will examine how shifts in self-identity alter the accessibility of our memories and, in turn, our social and emotional functioning. Emphasis will also be placed on autobiographical memory and self-identity disturbances associated with mental illness and the way in which neuropsychologists and neuroscientists study these changes following therapeutic interventions.

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Personality Development

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

For graduate students and for juniors and seniors with permission of the instructor.

A century ago, Sigmund Freud postulated a complex theory of the development of the person. While some aspects of his theory have come into question, many of the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory have become part of our common culture and worldview. This course will explore developmental and clinical concepts about how personality comes to be through reading and discussion of the work of key contributors to psychoanalytic developmental theory since Freud. We will trace the evolution of what Pine has called the “four psychologies of psychoanalysis”—drive, ego, object, and self-psychologies—as well as the integrative “relational perspective”; and we will consider the issues they raise about children’s development into individuals with unique personalities within broad, shared developmental patterns in a given culture. Readings will include the work of Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, Margaret Mahler, Daniel Stern, Steven Mitchell, Nancy Chodorow, and George Vaillant. Throughout the semester, we will return to fundamental themes such as the complex interaction of nature and nurture, the unanswered questions about the development of personal style, and the cultural dimensions of personality development. Fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or another appropriate setting is required, although conference projects may or may not center on aspects of that experience, depending on the individual student’s interest.

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Challenges to Development: Child and Adolescent Psychopathology

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

For graduate students and for juniors and seniors by permission of the instructor.

This course addresses the multiple factors that play a role in shaping a child’s development, particularly as those factors may result in what we think of as psychopathology. Starting with a consideration of what the terms “normality” and “pathology” may refer to in our culture, we will read about and discuss a variety of situations that illustrate different interactions of inborn, environmental, and experiential influences on developing lives. For example, we will read theory and case material addressing congenital conditions such as deafness and life events such as acute trauma and abuse, as well as the range of less clear-cut circumstances and complex interactions of variables that have an impact on growth and adaptation in childhood and adolescence. In discussing readings drawn from clinical and developmental psychology, memoir, and research studies, we will examine a number of the current conversations and controversies about assessment, diagnostic/labeling, early intervention, use of psychoactive medications, and treatment modalities. Students will be required to engage in fieldwork at the Early Childhood Center or elsewhere and may choose whether to focus conference projects on aspects of that experience.

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The Empathic Attitude

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. —Joseph Conrad

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our soul’s wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we…were. —Emerson, Divinity School Address, 1838

After graphically describing her predicament to her cousin Molly, Sarah asked: “So, do you understand?” “Yes, I do, I certainly do,” her cousin replied. “You do?” Sarah asked again. “Most emphatically, I do.” “Then you agree with me?” “Oh no.” “You sympathize with me then?” “No, I don’t.” “Then you at least see it from my point of view.” “Hardly.” “Then what do you understand?” “You are simply a fool!” “How dare you judge me?” “If I see it from your point of view, I shall only be a different kind of judge. My dear Sarah, don’t you see that there is no escaping judgment?”

For Conrad, the other is so shrouded in mists that our empathic understanding must necessarily fall short. For Emerson, an empathic rapport is rare but possible. As for Sarah and Molly, what can we say? Do they completely fail to understand each other, or do they understand each other only too well? Indeed, what do we mean by understanding in this context? Too often, understanding is confused with agreement or the absence of judgment. This course will examine what an empathic understanding entails and the function of empathy in defining areas of conflict, as well as in the resolution of conflict. In brief, the empathic attitude requires us to enjoy and appreciate the differences between ourselves and others even as we attempt to bridge those differences.

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Disabilities and Society

Open , Seminar—Fall

In this seminar, we will broadly consider the topic of disability within contemporary society, examining questions of social justice, discrimination, rights, identities, and cultural representations. Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field of academic study that emerged out of disability rights movements and has, therefore, focused on how social structures are disabling, limiting, and exclusionary. In concert with this perspective, we will study the history of the disability rights movement, including the passage and ramifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will also consider tensions within disability movements, including the difficulties inherent in mobilizing a collective identity that encompasses a wide range of conditions and circumstances. In addition to political mobilization, we will analyze cultural meanings and representations of physical, psychological, and cognitive disabilities. Cultural representations of disability shape our assumptions and expectations, while disability activists have used literature and art to contest stigma and create new kinds of representations of non-normative bodies and selves. Finally, we will consider questions of embodiment, self, and identity. Disability is typically defined in terms of physical or mental impairment, which implies that there is a “normal” state of non-impairment. Defining disability has been highly contested, both because of the stigma attached to those who are seen as different and because many people with conditions that have been labeled as disabilities do not see their conditions in negative terms. Most of us will experience some degree of impairment at some point in our lives; but only some of us will be seen as, or identify ourselves as, disabled. Some disabilities are a part of identity from an early age, and others develop later in life. Thus, we will consider the relationship between embodiment, ability, and selfhood, looking at how people negotiate identity in relation to social categories and their own embodied experiences.

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Embodiment and Biological Knowledge: Public Engagement in Medicine and Science

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

In this course, we will explore when, why, and how biological ideas become salient to people’s identities and to political debates, whether and how closely popular conceptions of biology and the physical body match scientific and medical knowledge, and the variations in the extent to which biological knowledge is seen as relevant to particular conceptions of the self or social controversies over the body. For example, why have vaccinations become controversial, and what understandings of the immune system underlie these controversies? How does the subjective nature of pain figure into controversies over contested illnesses such as fibromyalgia or repetitive strain syndrome? What do “genes” or “genetics” mean in social or cultural terms? How do hormones figure into our cultural understanding of gender and into people’s own gendered self-identities, particularly at times of hormonal change such as puberty, hysterectomy, or taking hormones as part of aligning the physical body with gender identity? In sociology and anthropology, medical and scientific knowledge has often been described as alienating, distancing people from their direct embodied experiences. Yet, to be a body is also always to be in a social context; so that perception is simultaneously cultural and physical. While medical and scientific knowledge provides us with ideas about our bodies that we cannot directly experience (e.g., our genes), these ideas can be deeply embedded and socially powerful explanatory systems. Thus, scholars have also argued that rather than alienating us from ourselves and our bodies, medical knowledge is constitutive of bodies and selves. Biological ideas and terms also circulate freely, so that popular conceptions of biology or physiology and scientific knowledge may not map neatly onto each other. We will explore these themes of bodily association and dissociation, science as alienating or constitutive, and popularization and expertise through various domains of biological knowledge, embodiment, and public debate. Past course work in the social sciences is beneficial but not required.

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