Biology

Biology is the study of life in its broadest sense, ranging from topics such as the role of trees in affecting global atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the molecular mechanisms that switch genes on and off in human brain cells. Biology includes a tremendous variety of disciplines: molecular biology, immunology, histology, anatomy, physiology, developmental biology, behavior, evolution, ecology, and many others. Because Sarah Lawrence College faculty members are broadly trained and frequently teach across the traditional disciplinary boundaries, students gain an integrated knowledge of living things—a view of the forest as well as the trees.

In order to provide a broad introduction and foundation in the field of biology, a number of courses appear under the designation General Biology Series. Each of these open-level, semester-long courses have an accompanying lab component. Students may enroll in any number of the General Biology Series courses during their time at Sarah Lawrence and in any order, although it is strongly recommended that students begin with General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution in the fall semester. Completion of any two General Biology Series courses fulfills the minimum biology curriculum requirements for medical school admission. These courses typically meet the prerequisite needs for further intermediate- and advanced-level study in biology, as well.

Courses

Biology

Developmental Biology

Intermediate—Spring

What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of a horse, the paddle of a porpoise, and the wing of a bat should all be constructed on the same pattern and should include similar bones, and in the same relative positions? —Charles Darwin, 1859

Developmental biologists study the formation of a single cell to a complex multicellular being between fertilization and birth. How can one cell give rise to all of the different cell types in the body? How do our bodies have left/right symmetry? Why can some animals regenerate structures, but others cannot? How do organisms know exactly how and where to make a head? How do developmental systems evolve? These are the types of questions that we will address in this course. We will integrate organismal, cellular, genetic, and molecular approaches to the study of animal development. We will analyze a diversity of mechanisms, ranging from ones that set up pattern formation in the unfertilized egg to those governing morphogenesis of organ systems. Topics covered will include embryogenesis, developmental genetics, axis specification, morphogen signaling, stem cells, cloning, limb formation, sex determination, and mechanisms of developmental evolution, as well as congenital defects and issues in human development.

Faculty

Animal Behavior

Open—Fall

Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles each year between Mexico and Canada. How and why do they achieve this magnificent feat? Superb Lyrebirds have a stunning ability to accurately mimic a variety of natural or artificial sounds. What is the purpose of this exceptional mimicking? The Clark’s nutcracker birds travel long distances and bury tens of thousands of seeds each summer—and the next spring remember the precise location of their cache sites to retrieve the seeds. Why has this tremendous long-term memory evolved, and what is its neural basis? Elephants and chimpanzees are known to mourn their dead for weeks or months. Do animals, like humans, have thoughts, feelings, morality, and empathy? How do scientists test these ideas? In this Animal Behavior course, we will cover the major topics in the study of animal behavior by exploring its function, development, mechanism, and evolution. We will particularly focus on the influence of genes and the environment on animal behavior. Students will conduct an independent project by learning to observe animal behavior, formulate a hypothesis, and design their own experiments.

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Global Change Biology

Open—Spring

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Nutrient pollution. Invasive species. Global ecosystems are being altered in dramatic ways due to human activities. In order to address these challenges, we first need to understand them scientifically. This course will explore the impacts of global environmental change through the lens of the biological sciences. Should humans assist with tree migration so that slow-migrating plants can catch up to changing temperature conditions? How are invasive predators like Burmese pythons in Florida affecting mammal populations? How can the extensive use of fertilizers upstream in a large river affect biological communities downstream? How has overfishing altered marine biodiversity? How could urbanization and habitat loss alter the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to humans? We will use the scientific journal articles and other primary sources to address these kinds of questions and more in this seminar course.

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Related Disciplines

Giving, Taking, and Cheating: The Ecology of Symbiosis

Open—Spring

From gut flora of animals to fungi living in tree roots, symbioses are important and widespread throughout the natural world. We can broadly define symbiosis as different species living together in a close association of any nature, from mutualism to parasitism. In this seminar course, we will explore how symbioses are developed, maintained, and broken down and consider the scientific challenges to understanding the function of such associations. We will read and discuss papers from the primary literature exploring a broad range of taxonomic groups, including fungus-farming ants, bioluminescent bacteria living in squid, figs and their wasp pollinators, parasitic butterflies, and sloths and the moths that live in their fur. We will place a special emphasis on mutualisms, or interactions in which both partners benefit—unless, of course, one cheats. We will also think carefully about how to design scientific experiments to understand the nature of symbioses and design and carry out class experiments on mutualisms between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Faculty

Disease Ecology

Intermediate—Fall

Interactions between hosts and pathogens have consequences not only at the individual level but also cascading up through populations, communities, and ecosystems. In this course, we will look at infectious disease through the lens of ecology. We will consider infected hosts as ecosystems, focusing on ecological interactions within hosts both between microorganisms and between pathogens and the host immune system. Further, we will investigate disease dynamics within and between populations, including the emergence of new diseases and the dynamics of vector-borne disease systems. Mathematical models of disease transmission and spread will be introduced. Finally, we will explore the larger impacts of disease on biological communities and entire ecosystems, considering topics such as the relationship between disease and biodiversity and the surprising ways in which disease can affect ecosystem structure and function. Examples will be drawn from plant, wildlife, and human disease systems.

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Related Disciplines

General Biology Series: Ecology

Open—Fall

The natural world can be beautiful and inspiring but also can be challenging to understand mechanistically. Ecology is the scientific study of how organisms interact with the environment. Ecologists might ask questions about how plant growth responds to climate change, how squirrel population size or behavior changes in response to acorn availability, or how nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous cycle in rivers and streams. In this course, students will develop a strong foundational understanding of the science of ecology on the individual, population, community, and ecosystem scales. Throughout the course, emphasis will be placed on how carefully-designed experiments and data analysis can help us find predictable patterns despite the complexity of nature. Students will be expected to design and carry out a field experiment in small groups. The course will include a weekly lab section, with most labs held outdoors at local parks and field stations.

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General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution

Lecture—Fall

Biology, the study of life on Earth, encompasses structures and forms ranging from the very minute to the very large. In order to grasp the complexities of life, we begin this study with the cellular and molecular forms and mechanisms that serve as the foundation for all living organisms. The initial part of the semester will introduce the fundamental molecules critical to the biochemistry of life processes. From there, we branch out to investigate the major ideas, structures, and concepts central to the biology of cells, genetics, and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. Finally, we conclude the semester by examining how these principles relate to the mechanisms of evolution. Throughout the semester, we will discuss the individuals responsible for major discoveries, as well as the experimental techniques and processes by which such advances in biological understanding are made. This semester-long lecture is designed to serve as a foundational course and appropriate lead-in to additional courses in the General Biology Series. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Virology

Advanced—Spring

Viruses are some of the smallest biological entities found in nature yet, at the same time, perhaps the most notorious. Having no independent metabolic activity of their own, they function as intracellular parasites, depending entirely on infecting and interacting with the cells of a host organism to produce new copies of themselves. The effects on the host organism can be catastrophic, leading to disease and death. HIV has killed more than 18 million people since its identification and infected twice that number. Ebola, West Nile virus, herpes and pox viruses...all well-known viruses yet shrouded in fear and mystery. During the course of this semester, we will examine the biology of viruses, discussing their physical and genetic properties, their interaction with host cells, their ability to commandeer the cellular machinery for their own reproductive needs, the effects of viral infection on host cells, and finally how viruses and other subviral entities may have originated and evolved. In addition, we will examine how viruses have been portrayed in literature, with readings that include Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

Faculty

Human Genetics

Lecture—Fall

The formation of an individual’s life is dependent upon a complex mixture of cultural experiences, social interactions, and personal health and physiology. At the center of this intricate web lies the biological components unique to each of us yet shared in some form by all life on earth—our genes. Genes contribute much to what makes each of us an individual, from hair color and body shape to intelligence and personality. Such genes and traits are inherited from our parents, yet environmental factors can profoundly influence their function in different individuals. Stunning advancements in the field of genetics are reported every day, from the identification of new genes for particular traits to the development of gene-based tests for human diseases. But what exactly are genes, and how do they work in humans? In this course, we will explore how genes and chromosomes provide the basic blueprint that leads to our unique physical and behavioral characteristics. In doing so, we will discuss the central concepts of human genetics, including: the mechanisms and patterns of inheritance, sex-linked traits, the genetics of behavior, DNA and proteins, the role of mutations in causing disease, human origins and evolution, and the application of various genetic technologies such as stem cells and genetically modified organisms. Readings will be drawn from texts, as well as current popular-press and peer-reviewed articles. No previous background in biology is required other than curiosity and a desire to understand the genetic mechanisms that shape human existence and make us who we are.

Faculty

General Biology Series: Anatomy and Physiology

Open—Spring

Anatomy is the branch of science that explores the bodily structure of living organisms, while physiology is the study of the normal functions of these organisms. In this course, we will transition to the exploration of the human body in both health and disease. Focus will be placed on the major body units such as skin, skeletal/muscular, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. By emphasizing concepts rather than the memorization of facts, we will make associations between anatomical structures and their functions. The course will take a clinical approach to anatomy and physiology, with examples drawn from medical disciplines such as radiology, pathology, and surgery. In addition, a separate weekly laboratory component will reinforce key topics. Assessment will include weekly quizzes and a final conference paper at the conclusion of the course. The topic for the paper will be chosen by each student to emphasize the relevance of anatomy/physiology to our understanding of the human body.

Faculty

The Biology of Living and Dying

Open—Spring

“He not busy being born is busy dying.” —Bob Dylan

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered that a gene used by the tiny worm C. elegans to regulate how much it eats, how fat it becomes, and how long it lives is strikingly similar to the gene for the human insulin receptor. Poets and scientists agree. Eating and getting old, sex and death…these processes seemed inexorably linked. A single gene that governs what you eat and how long you live: What’s the link? Why is obesity now described as an epidemic in the United States? Can we live longer by eating less? Why is it so hard for people to permanently lose weight? Why should there be a gene that causes aging? If aging is a deliberate, genetically programmed phenomenon and not just the body wearing out, might modern biology be able to find a cure? Is it even ethical to try to pursue a fountain of youth? This course will explore these and other questions about the biological regulation of eating and body weight and the process of aging and death.

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