Chemistry seeks to understand our physical world on an atomic level. This microscopic picture uses the elements of the periodic table as building blocks for a vast array of molecules, ranging from water to DNA. But some of the most fascinating aspects of chemistry involve chemical reactions, where molecules combine and transform—sometimes dramatically—to generate new molecules.

Chemistry explores many areas of our physical world, ranging from our bodies and the air that we breathe to the many products of the human endeavor and including art and a plethora of consumer products. Students at Sarah Lawrence College may investigate these diverse areas of chemistry through a variety of courses that provide a foundation in the theories central to this discipline.

Just as experimentation played a fundamental role in the formulation of the theories of chemistry, experimentation plays an integral part in learning them. Therefore, laboratory experiments complement many of the seminar courses.

Chemistry 2023-2024 Courses

First-Year Studies: The Extraordinary Chemistry of Everyday Life

FYS—Year | 10 credits

Everything that we eat, wear, and do involves chemistry. This yearlong course examines the chemistry of our everyday life—the way things work. The emphasis of this course is on understanding the everyday use of chemistry. We will introduce chemistry concepts with everyday examples, such as household chemicals and gasoline, that show how we already use chemistry and reveal why chemistry is important to us. We will concentrate on topics of current interest, such as environmental pollution, and the substances that we use in our daily lives and that affect our environment and us. We will emphasize practical applications of chemistry to issues involving food and nutrition. In this FYS course, we will have weekly one-on-one conferences for the fall semester and biweekly for the spring semester.


General Chemistry I

Open, Small Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

This course is the first part of a two-semester sequence that provides a broad foundation for the scientific discipline of chemistry, introducing its fundamental principles and techniques and demonstrating the central role of chemistry in biology and medicine. We first look at basic descriptions of elemental properties, the periodic table, solid and molecular structures, and chemical bonding. We then relate these topics to the electronic structure of atoms. The mole as a unit is introduced so that a quantitative treatment of stoichiometry can be considered. After this introduction, we go on to consider physical chemistry, which provides the basis for a quantitative understanding of (i) the kinetic theory of gases (which is developed to consider the nature of liquids and solids); (ii) equilibria and the concepts of the equilibrium constant and of pH; (iii) energy changes in chemical reactions and the fundamental principles of thermodynamics; (iv) the rates of chemical reactions and the concepts of the rate determining step and activation energy. Practical work in the laboratory periods of this course introduces the use and handling of basic chemical equipment and illustrates the behavior of simple chemical substances. In addition to the two regular class meetings and laboratory session each week, there will be an hour-long weekly group conference. This lecture course will be of interest to students interested in the study of chemistry or biology and to those planning on a career in medicine and related health.


General Chemistry II

Intermediate, Small Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

Prerequisite: General Chemistry I

This course is a continuation of General Chemistry I. We will begin with a detailed study of both the physical and chemical properties of solutions. This will enable us to consider the factors that affect both the rates and direction of chemical reactions. We will then investigate the properties of acids and bases and the role that electricity plays in chemistry. The course will conclude with introductions to nuclear chemistry and organic chemistry. Weekly laboratory sessions will allow us to demonstrate and test the theories described in the lecture segment of the course.


The Chemistry of Art Materials

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

Do you admire paintings? Color? Yes, of course. As they age, paintings develop cracks and blisters and discolor. What is going on? In this course, we will learn about the investigative tools used by art conservation scientists as they diagnose the aging issues associated with paintings and other artworks. The course will cover chemical aspects of art materials, including the preparation and discoloration of artists’ pigments with emphasis on inorganic pigments, toxicology of art materials, and the aging of the oil matrix of oil paintings. Students will be taught how to use chemical mechanism, based on changes in structure as a common language that applies to the aging of art materials. Students will develop an individual project that is based on the chemistry of art materials. The approach will be nonmathematical.


Organic Chemistry I

Open, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

Organic chemistry is the study of chemical compounds whose molecules are based on a framework of carbon atoms, typically in combination with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Despite this rather limited set of elements, there are more organic compounds known than there are compounds that do not contain carbon. Adding to the importance of organic chemistry is the fact that very many of the chemical compounds that make modern life possible—such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, herbicides, plastics, pigments, and dyes—can be classed as organic. Organic chemistry, therefore, impacts many other scientific subjects; and knowledge of organic chemistry is essential for a detailed understanding of materials science, environmental science, molecular biology, and medicine. This course gives an overview of the structures, physical properties, and reactivity of organic compounds. We will see that organic compounds can be classified into families of similar compounds based upon certain groups of atoms that always behave in a similar manner no matter what molecule they are in. These functional groups will enable us to rationalize the vast number of reactions that organic reagents undergo. Topics covered in this course include: the types of bonding within organic molecules; fundamental concepts of organic reaction mechanisms (nucleophilic substitution, elimination, and electrophilic addition); the conformations and configurations of organic molecules; and the physical and chemical properties of alkanes, halogenoalkanes, alkenes, alkynes, and alcohols. In the laboratory section of the course, we will develop the techniques and skills required to synthesize, separate, purify, and identify organic compounds. Organic Chemistry is a key requirement for pre-med students and is strongly encouraged for all others who are interested in the biological and physical sciences.


Molecules: Bonding, Structure, and Reactivity

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall | 5 credits

Prerequisite: prior study of chemistry or permission of the instructor

The structure of a molecule (its particular arrangement of atoms in three-dimensional space) is the source of its chemical behavior and physical properties. Principally, the structure of a compound dictates its melting point, its reactivity toward other chemical species, its response to light, and its benefit (or harm) to a living organism. In this course, we will seek to understand the interactions between atoms that lead to the formation of molecules. That will allow us to survey the different arrangements and symmetries that occur within the molecules of important compounds. We will then go on to investigate the relationships between molecular structure and chemical reactivity. We will also explore the techniques that chemists use to determine molecular structures: mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Once we have a sound understanding of those techniques, we will become chemical detectives and use the information that they provide to solve chemical puzzles in order to elucidate the identities and structures of unknown molecules. In the laboratory section of the course, we will synthesize a variety of different types of molecular compounds and then use spectroscopic techniques to investigate their structures. This course will be useful for both pre-health students and those who wish to develop a fuller and deeper understanding of the physical and biological sciences.


Organic Chemistry II

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

Prerequisite: Organic Chemistry I

In this course, we will explore the physical and chemical properties of additional families of organic molecules. The reactivity of aromatic compounds, aldehydes and ketones, carboxylic acids and their derivatives (acid chlorides, acid anhydrides, esters, and amides), enols and enolates, and amines will be discussed. We will also investigate the methods by which large, complicated molecules can be synthesized from simple starting materials. Modern methods of organic structural determination—such as mass spectrometry, 1H and 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and infrared spectroscopy—will also be introduced. In the laboratory section of this course, we will continue to develop the techniques and skills required to synthesize, separate, purify, and identify organic compounds. Organic Chemistry II is a key requirement for pre-med students and is strongly encouraged for all others who are interested in the biological and physical sciences.


First-Year Studies: The Brain According to Oliver Sacks


Dr. Oliver Sacks was a prominent neurologist and prolific writer, who considered the workings of the brain by observing and diagnosing patients—including himself. Sacks communicated the marvels of the nervous system to the public through his engaging and remarkable stories of neurological dysfunction and his musings on intriguing and poorly understood topics in neuroscience. We will study the brain in health and disease through Sacks’s writings, accompanied by other readings and films that complement and expand upon Sacks’s descriptions of brain function. Topics will likely include: vision, blindness, and prosopagnosia (aka face-blindness, which Sacks himself had); speech, reading, audition, music, and deafness; autism spectrum disorder; Tourette’s syndrome; neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and ALS; learning, memory, and amnesia. We will meet for seminar classes and biweekly individual conferences throughout the year. In the fall semester, we will also have weekly group collaborative meetings, which will include neuroanatomy exploration using a neuroscience coloring book, movie screenings, or writing workshops.


General Biology: Genes, Cells, and Evolution

Open, Small 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 those 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 process by which such advances in biological understanding are made. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work. This course serves as the gateway course into the biology department curriculum.


Drugs and the Brain

Open, Lecture—Spring

The nervous system is the ultimate target of many drugs: those taken to alleviate pain, to increase pleasure, or to transform perceptions. We will focus on the neuronal targets and mechanisms of psychoactive drugs, including which neurotransmitter systems they modulate. We will consider stimulants, depressants, narcotics, analgesics, hallucinogens, and psychotherapeutics. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of drug use and abuse, we will also explore the social, political, economic, and genetic factors that influence drug consumption—both legal and illegal—and drug epidemics, including the ongoing and devastating opioid epidemic. We will learn about drug sources, forms, and methods of use while also exploring what is known about the biological basis of tolerance, cravings, withdrawal, and addiction. Lectures will be complemented by seminar-style group conferences in which we will discuss the narrative nonfiction books Dreamland, by Sam Quinones, and How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan.


Hormones, Food, and Sex

Open, Seminar—Fall

Hormones are released from diverse tissues, including the brain, ovaries, testes, stomach, intestines, and fat. These small molecules travel around the body via the circulatory system to influence the activity of distant cells involved in key biological processes. In this introduction to endocrinology, we will study the principles of hormone signaling by focusing on two overarching topics: 1) hormones that modulate food intake and utilization, and 2) hormones that control reproduction. The key molecules, cells, and tissues that play a role in endocrine-signaling pathways will be examined. We will study hormones that control appetite, satiation, fat deposition, and weight, as well as those that control many aspects of reproduction—including puberty, arousal, sex, gender identity, ovulation, pregnancy, and lactation. Readings will include textbook chapters, scientific articles, and popular science pieces.



Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

At the biological core of all life on Earth is the gene. The unique combination of genes in each individual ultimately forms the basis for that person's physical appearance, metabolic capacity, thought processes, and behavior. Therefore, in order to understand how life develops and functions, it is critical to understand what genes are, how they work, and how they are passed on from parents to offspring. In this course, we will begin by investigating the theories of inheritance first put forth by Mendel and then progress to our current concepts of how genes are transmitted through individuals, families, and whole populations. We will also examine chromosome structure and the mechanisms and molecular functions of genes and DNA within cells and how mutations in DNA can lead to physical abnormalities and diseases such as Trisomy 21, hemophilia, or others. Finally, we will discuss the role of genetics in influencing such complex phenotypes as behavior or traits such as intelligence. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.


Cell Biology

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Cells are the most basic unit of life on the planet. All life forms are simply conglomerations of cells, ranging from the individual bacterial cells to higher-order plants and animals. Humans, themselves, are made up of trillions of cells. So what exactly is a cell? What is it made of? How does it function? In a complex organism, how do cells communicate with one another and coordinate their activities? How do they regulate their growth? What role do genes play in controlling cellular function? This course will address these questions and introduce the basic biology of cells while keeping in mind their larger role in tissues and organs. If we can understand the structures and functions of the individual cells that serve as the subunits of larger organisms, we can begin to understand the biological nature of humans and other complex life forms. Classes will be supplemented with laboratory work.


Multivariable Mathematics: Linear Algebra, Vector Calculus, and Differential Equations

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

Rarely is a quantity of interest—tomorrow’s temperature, unemployment rates across Europe, the cost of a spring-break flight to Fort Lauderdale—a simple function of just one primary variable. Reality, for better or worse, is mathematically multivariable. This course introduces an array of topics and tools used in the mathematical analysis of multivariable functions. The intertwined theories of vectors, matrices, and differential equations and their applications will be the central themes of exploration in this yearlong course. Specific topics to be covered include the algebra and geometry of vectors in two, three, and higher dimensions; dot and cross products and their applications; equations of lines and planes in higher dimensions; solutions to systems of linear equations, using Gaussian elimination; theory and applications of determinants, inverses, and eigenvectors; volumes of three-dimensional solids via integration; spherical and cylindrical coordinate systems; and methods of visualizing and constructing solutions to differential equations of various types. Conference work will involve an investigation of some mathematically-themed subject of the student’s choosing.


Calculus I

Open, Seminar—Fall

Our existence lies in a perpetual state of change. An apple falls from a tree; clouds move across expansive farmland, blocking out the sun for days; meanwhile, satellites zip around the Earth, transmitting and receiving signals to our cell phones. The calculus was invented to develop a language to accurately describe and study the changes that we see. Ancient Greeks began a detailed study of change but were scared to wrestle with the infinite; so, it was not until the 17th century that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, among others, tamed the infinite and gave birth to this extremely successful branch of mathematics. Though just a few hundred years old, the calculus has become an indispensable research tool in both the natural and social sciences. Our study begins with the central concept of the limit and proceeds to explore the dual topics of differentiation and integration. Numerous applications of the theory will be examined. For conference work, students may choose to undertake a deeper investigation of a single topic or application of the calculus or conduct a study in some other branch of mathematics. This seminar is intended for students interested in advanced study in mathematics or science, students preparing for careers in the health sciences or engineering, and any student wishing to broaden and enrich the life of the mind.


Calculus II

Open, Seminar—Spring

This course continues the thread of mathematical inquiry, following an initial study of the dual topics of differentiation and integration (see Calculus I course description). Topics to be explored in this course include the calculus of exponential and logarithmic functions, applications of integration theory to geometry, alternative coordinate systems, infinite series, and power series representations of functions. For conference work, students may choose to undertake a deeper investigation of a single topic or application of the calculus or conduct a study of some other mathematically-related topic, including artistic projects. This seminar is intended for students interested in advanced study in mathematics or science, preparing for careers in the health sciences or engineering, or simply wishing to broaden and enrich the life of the mind.


Thermal Physics

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Some bears like their porridge very hot. Others like their porridge very cold. And then there are certain bears that like their porridge to have a temperature that is just right. What is temperature, anyway? In this course, we will not be cooking any porridge but will provide an introduction to thermal physics. Topics will include: thermodynamics (energy, temperature, work, heat, ideal gases); statistical mechanics (entropy, partition functions, distributions, chemical potential, non-ideal gases, bosonic gas, fermionic gas); and applications from physics, chemistry, and engineering (engines, refrigerators, Bose-Einstein condensates, maybe black holes). Previous experience with introductory physics (velocity, forces, energy) and chemistry is helpful but not required.


Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Research Seminar

Open, Seminar—Spring

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has played a huge role in science since the mid-20th century, garnering five Nobel prizes across chemistry, physics, and medicine. Today, NMR remains a crucial analytical and diagnostic tool in those scientific disciplines. This lab-based course will introduce students to the theory, practice, and applications of NMR in a truly multidisciplinary way—linking the physics behind these techniques with their applications in chemistry, medicine, quantum information science, and beyond. Absolutely no prior knowledge of NMR is expected. The course materials are designed to guide students through the relevant physics concepts and provide a hands-on learning and research environment that makes use of our on-campus benchtop NMR spectrometers. In addition to work done together as a class, students will undertake individual conference projects that will involve designing and performing their own research projects utilizing the benchtop NMR spectrometers and presenting their work at local undergraduate research symposiums. First-year students who enrolled in It’s About Time as their first-year studies class are expected to enroll in this course in the spring as a continuation of their first-year studies experience.


Creative Nonfiction

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Fall

This is a course for creative writers who are interested in exploring nonfiction as an art form. We will focus on reading and interpreting outside work—essays, articles, and journalism by some of our best writers—in order to understand what good nonfiction is and how it is created. During the first part of the semester, writing will be comprised mostly of exercises and short pieces aimed at putting into practice what is being illuminated in the readings; in the second half of the semester, students will create longer, formal essays to be presented in workshop.