Chemistry

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: Atmospheric Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Nutrition, Photographic Chemistry, and Extraordinary Chemistry of Everyday Life, to name a few. In addition to these courses, the College routinely offers General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Biochemistry to 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.

2020-2021 Courses

Chemistry

First-Year Studies: The Extraordinary Chemistry of Everyday Life

Open, FYS—Year

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 that affect our environment and us. We will emphasize practical applications of chemistry to issues involving food and nutrition. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

Faculty

General Chemistry I

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Chemistry is the study of the properties, composition, and transformation of matter. Chemistry is central to the production of the materials required for modern life; for example, the synthesis of pharmaceuticals to treat disease, the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides required to feed an ever-growing population, and the development of efficient and environmentally benign energy sources. This course provides an introduction to the fundamental concepts of modern chemistry. We will begin by examining the structure and properties of atoms, which are the building blocks of the elements and the simplest substances in the material world around us. We will then explore how atoms of different elements can bond with each other to form an infinite variety of more complex substances called compounds. This will lead us to an investigation of several classes of chemical reactions—the processes by which substances are transformed into new materials with different physical properties. Along the way, we will learn how and why the three states of matter (solids, liquids, and gases) differ from one another and how energy may be either produced or consumed by chemical reactions. In weekly laboratory sessions, we will perform experiments to illustrate and test the theories presented in the lecture part of the course. The experiments will also serve to develop practical skills in both synthetic and analytic chemical techniques.

Faculty

Elemental Epics: Stories of Love, War, Madness, and Murder From the Periodic Table of the Elements

Open, Lecture—Spring

The Periodic Table displays the chemical elements according to the structure of their atoms and, consequently, their chemical properties. The Periodic Table also represents a treasure trove of fascinating stories that span both natural and human history. Many of the elements on the table have influenced key historical events and shaped individual lives. In this course, we will tour the Periodic Table and learn how the stories of the discovery and investigation of the elements fuse science with human drama—from murders to cures for deadly diseases and from new technologies to the fall of civilizations.

Faculty

General Chemistry II

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

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, which 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.

Faculty

Organic Chemistry I (Guided Inquiry)

Open, Seminar—Fall

No prior knowledge of chemistry is required. Students will be able to take this course in the fall, Organic Chemistry II (Guided Inquiry) in the spring, and then General Chemistry or other, more advanced chemistry courses in subsequent years.

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 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. In addition, the Guided Inquiry exercises conducted in class will sharpen your analytical skills and teach you how to think like a scientist. Depending on the COVID-19 situation, the lab portion of this course may proceed as normal, be postponed until later in the semester, or offered as a separate one- or two-credit course (Practical Organic Chemistry) in the spring.

Faculty

Practical Organic Chemistry

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

This course is only available to those students taking Organic Chemistry (Guided Inquiry) this semester.

This course, the accompanying laboratory for this year’s Organic Chemistry (Guided Inquiry) I & II course sequence, consists of a series of virtual laboratory experiences and group exercises that are designed to illustrate and explore many of the principles of organic chemistry described in the seminar courses. Students will be introduced to the important practical techniques used in synthetic organic chemistry, including the separation, purification, and identification of compounds. Opportunities for in-person laboratory activities will also be offered for those students able and willing to participate.

Faculty

Organic Chemistry II (Guided Inquiry)

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: Organic Chemistry I

This course is a continuation of Organic Chemistry I (Guided Inquiry). This semester, 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 (Guided Inquiry) is a key requirement for pre-med students and is strongly encouraged for all others who are interested in the biological and physical sciences.

Faculty

Biochemistry

Advanced, Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: Two semesters of Organic Chemistry.

This course is concerned with the chemical basis of biology. We will begin by examining the structure and function of the main classes of biologically important molecules: amino acids, peptides, and proteins; carbohydrates; and lipids. We will then look at enzyme activity, including the mechanisms, kinetics, and regulation of enzyme-mediated reactions. This will be followed by an overview of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and their role within eukaryotic cells. The study of biological membranes will then lead to an investigation of bioenergetics and metabolic processes within cells.

Faculty

Sensory Biology

Open, Seminar—Fall

Why do chili peppers taste “hot,” while peppermint gum tastes “cold”? How can humans distinguish between a trillion different odors? Can onions be confused with apples if our noses are plugged? Why do flowers appear different to humans and to bees? Why can’t we hear the echolocation calls of most bats? The answers to these questions lie in our understanding of how animals interact with their environments via sensory perception. In this course, we will study the sensory systems underlying hearing, balance, vision, smell, taste, and touch, as well as unique abilities that support some animal navigation strategies like magnetoreception used by butterflies and sea turtles during migration. We will explore senses from a neurobiological perspective and, therefore, will begin with an overview of the nervous system and the structure and function of neurons. We will then study how each sense is based on the perception of a particular stimulus by specialized sensory neurons within specialized sensory tissues. We will discuss how stimuli are converted to cellular information and how that is communicated to the brain, leading to perception.

Faculty

Hormones, Food, and Sex

Open, Seminar—Spring

Hormones are released from diverse tissues, including the brain, ovaries, testes, and fatty tissues. The small molecules travel around the body via the circulatory system and can influence the activity of distant cells involved in key biological processes. In this course, we will study the principles of hormone signaling (endocrinology) by focusing on two overarching topics: (1) hormones that modulate food intake and utilization; and (2) hormones that control reproduction. We will study the hormones that control appetite, flavor, fat deposition, and weight and how hormone levels contribute to sustaining unhealthy weights in obese individuals. We will study the hormones that control many aspects of reproduction, including puberty, ovulation, sexuality, sex, pregnancy, birth, lactation, and menopause. We will consider how hormones define male and female characteristics, as well as hormone therapy for transitioning transgender individuals.

Faculty

Animal Physiology

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: at least one course in the General Biology Series.

Animal physiology is the study how all components of animals—from cells to tissues to organs and organ systems—function together to support life. In this course, we will study many of the major categories of physiology while considering the overarching concepts of mechanism, form and function, adaptation, and homeostasis. Among possible topics are: circulation, respiration and breathing, feeding and digestion, movement and muscle, thermoregulation, osmoregulation, hormonal regulation, reproduction, neurons and the nervous system, sensory systems, and camouflage. As we discuss each physiological process, we will also explore ways in which different animals use species-specific adaptations to execute those processes (so-called comparative physiology). For instance, humans breathe using internal sack-like structures—the lungs—while frogs and salamanders can extract oxygen from the air by simple diffusion across their skin, and insects breathe through multiple small openings in their bodies that lead to an intricate series of tubes that permeate their entire organism, thereby obtaining oxygen without the use of a circulatory system. Diverse mechanisms such as these allow us to understand the fundamental principles of physiology and how they are employed in remarkable ways across the animal kingdom.

Faculty

Neurobiology

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: at least one college-level course in biology, chemistry, or psychology.

The human brain contains 100 billion neurons connected by trillions of synapses. This uniquely complex organ is responsible for our remarkable capacities, including the sensation and perception of diverse internal and external stimuli, the performance of precise movements and behaviors, and the ability to learn and remember an extraordinary amount of information. In this introduction to neurobiology, we will delve deeply into the structure and function of neurons and how they communicate with each other, with a focus on the action potential, neurotransmission, and the neuronal mechanisms thought to underlie learning and memory. We will then apply that knowledge to study select senses from molecular, cellular, and systems-level perspectives. In addition to gleaning foundational knowledge from textbook chapters, students will engage with cutting-edge scientific research by examining primary literature articles in journal clubs and by writing and presenting research papers on topics in neurobiology.

Faculty

Global Climate Change

Open, Seminar—Fall

Global climate change will be the defining issue of the coming decades, impacting most aspects of the global economy, policymaking, and day-to-day life. This seminar will provide a basic foundation in climate science, drawing on fundamental concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, and earth-systems science. We will also examine the linkages between global climate and human society, considering topics such as greenhouse-gas emissions, land-use change, and climate-change impacts. By the end of this course, students will be able to quantitatively apply the concepts that they have learned; to communicate through speech, in writing, and through graphics about technical issues related to climate change; and to understand the role of science in climate policy and decision making.

Faculty

Studies in Ecocriticism: The Idea of Nature in the Western Tradition

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat for biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to explore and understand the concept of “nature” at the core of the Western tradition and how it was shaped over the course of more than 2,000 years. This course will create a series of bridges between and among the history of literature, philosophy, and science, with implications for many other disciplines. Most importantly, we will discuss the Western and Judeo-Christian concept of nature in the context of race and ethnicity in America today by confronting it with works and arguments developed by black, indigenous, Latine, and Asian American authors. Among many themes, we will study how antiquity came to develop a concept of “physis,” so different from our modern understanding of physics, but also shaped our aesthetic eye with the creation of the pastoral genre and the idea of agreeable and tamed landscapes or set a model for a utilitarian relationship to nature with Hesiod and Vergil’s agricultural treaties. We will also analyze specific places, such as the forest in medieval chivalric romances and American “wilderness” fictions, or chaotic landscapes admired and imagined by the Romantics, or the sea as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick. The 17th-century scientific revolution and its mathematical and mechanistic approach to nature will lead us to discuss with Descartes the concept of animality in parallel with contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who make use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm. Going into a completely different direction, we will question the characteristics of a Judeo-Christian conception of the world, organized around a remote and immaterial god, in direct opposition to a more organic understanding of nature as a “motherly” and immanent figure with all of the reservations that such a figure implies. These are some of the questions that we will explore, and the focus of our discussions will be to bring new voices in order to deconstruct the Eurocentric concept of “nature.”

Faculty

The World According to Ariyoshi Sawako

Open, Seminar—Fall

No previous background in Japanese studies or literature is required for this course.

In this seminar, we will read a variety of works by Ariyoshi Sawako (1931-1984), one of Japan’s most talented storytellers in the last century. Ariyoshi’s novels vividly portray the lives of women in different historical moments, such as the dancer Okuni, the originator of kabuki theatre, in Kabuki Dancer; the wife and mother of Hanako Seishu, the first surgeon to perform surgery using general anesthesia, in The Doctor’s Wife; and a mother, daughter, and granddaughter whose lives reflect changes in modern Japan in The River Ki. Many of Ariyoshi’s works also expose social issues, such as The Twilight Years, her immensely popular novel on the challenges of caring for aging parents, and Compound Pollution, her environmental novel that brought greater public attention to the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Early in her writing career, Ariyoshi received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study at Sarah Lawrence College, and we will also consider how her experiences at Sarah Lawrence may have influenced the directions she took in her subsequent writing. Ariyoshi’s literature will provide us with a lens to consider various topics, such as Japanese performing arts, history, gender, social issues, and translation. In addition to these readings, we will view some film adaptations of Ariyoshi’s literary works.

Faculty

An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open, Lecture—Fall

Prerequisites: basic high-school algebra and plane-coordinate geometry

Variance, correlation coefficient, regression analysis, statistical significance, 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 so important? Serving as 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; specific topics of exploration will be drawn from experimental design theory, 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. Given that this is a presidential election year, we will also be closely watching the national polls and discussing the difficulties of projecting future results with accuracy (and why pollsters got it wrong in 2016). Conference work, conducted in workshop mode, will serve to reinforce student understanding of the course material. 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.

Faculty

Energy Around the World

Open, Lecture—Spring

This course aims to expose students of any discipline to the universal topic of energy and what we can do to use it sustainably. After defining the fundamental description of energy as a concept and energy as a property, this course will focus on learning about the different energy forms that we consume in our daily lives and where and how those energies are harnessed. Differences in renewable and nonrenewable energy sources will be highlighted, and suggestions for a sustainable use of energy in our daily lives will be developed as part of a group effort. Finally, we will apply the obtained knowledge in order to investigate the different uses of energy in different countries around the world. This course will be accompanied by take-home labs and projects to allow for a deeper understanding of the content. The material in this course will be communicated mostly conceptually, with the occasional use of basic algebra.

Faculty

Electromagnetism and Light (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Students are encouraged to have completed Classical Mechanics, or equivalent, along with Calculus II, or equivalent.

This is the follow-on course to Classical Mechanics, where we will be covering waves, geometric and wave optics, electrostatics, magnetostatics, and electrodynamics. We will use the exploration of the particle and wave properties of light to bookend our discussions and ultimately finish our exploration of classical physics with the hints of its incompleteness. Seminars and weekly laboratory meetings will incorporate technology-based, exploratory, and problem-solving activities.

Faculty

Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: one year of calculus, as well as one year of general physics and/or general chemistry.

What does a thermometer measure? How does a refrigerator work? What is really meant by “entropy”? This course covers an array of concepts with which these and similar questions can be addressed, including temperature, heat, entropy, and internal energy. We will explore the laws satisfied by these quantities (thermodynamics); their grounding in the statistical properties of large collections of particles (statistical mechanics); and their applications through various topics in physics, chemistry, and engineering. Seminars will include a mixture of discussion and mathematical problem solving. This is a standard intermediate course for students interested in pursuing physics, physical chemistry, or engineering. No previous exposure to thermodynamics is necessary.

Faculty

Ecopoetry

Open, Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the living world—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read and write poems every week. We will ask questions: When did we begin to think of nature as apart from us? Why did we begin to speak of the animals as if we are not also animals? What are the stories and myths that have determined our attitude toward what we are and what we believe? We will read some of these stories and myths (myths of creation; Eden, the lost garden). We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder to utterly contemporary poets writing right now. We will read books and articles that teach us about the other animals and living entities that we call plants and trees and planets and galaxies. Each student will research an aspect of the living world and teach the rest of us what they have learned. And we will write poems that incorporate that knowledge. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class in weekly poetry dates. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the Earth, the air? How can poetry address the planetary emergency? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world, to pay attention, and to write poetry that matters. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

Faculty