Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Science and Mathematics Student Presenting WorkScience is a dynamic process by which we seek to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We use the language and methods of science and mathematics on a daily basis. Science and mathematics nurture a special kind of creativity by enhancing our abilities to ask concise, meaningful questions and to design strategies to answer those questions. Such approaches teach us to think and work in new ways and to uncover and evaluate facts and place them in the context of modern society and everyday life. The division of Science and Mathematics offers classes in a variety of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics. Studies in each of these disciplines are offered at all levels, ranging from open courses to advanced seminars and individual laboratory research projects.

Qualified students have the option of enrolling in a Science Third Program. In the Science Third, students register for the seminar component of two science/ mathematics courses simultaneously, comprising one-third of their curriculum. Because Science Third students will still be able to take two additional nonscience courses each semester, this option is an opportunity for well-prepared or advanced students to study multiple science courses without limiting their options in other disciplines.

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, the biology department offers a number of courses 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.

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—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, it plays an integral part in learning them. Therefore, laboratory experiments complement many of the seminar courses.

Computer Science

What is computer science? Ask 100 computer scientists, and you will likely receive 100 different answers. One possible, fairly succinct, answer is that computer science is the study of algorithms: step-by-step procedures for accomplishing tasks formalized into very precise, atomic (indivisible) instructions. An algorithm should allow for a task to be accomplished by someone who or something that does not even understand the task. In other words, it is a recipe for an automated solution to a problem. Computers are tools for executing algorithms. (Not that long ago, “computer” referred to a person who computed!)

What are the basic building blocks of algorithms? How do we go about finding algorithmic solutions to problems? What makes an efficient algorithm in terms of the resources (time, memory, energy) that it requires? What does the efficiency of algorithms say about major applications of computer science such as cryptology, databases, and artificial intelligence? Computer science courses at Sarah Lawrence College are aimed at answering questions such as those. Sarah Lawrence computer science students also investigate how the discipline intersects other fields of study, including mathematics, philosophy, biology, and physics.

Mathematics

Whether they had any interest in mathematics in high school, students often discover a new appreciation for the field at Sarah Lawrence College. In our courses—which reveal the inherent elegance of mathematics as a reflection of the world and how it works—abstract concepts literally come to life. That vitality further emerges as faculty members adapt course content to fit student needs, emphasizing the historical context and philosophical underpinnings behind ideas and theories. By practicing rigorous logic, creative problem solving, and abstract thought in small seminar discussions, students cultivate habits of mind that they can apply to every interest. With well-developed, rational thinking and problem-solving skills, many students continue their studies in mathematics, computer science, philosophy, medicine, law, or business; others go into a range of careers in fields such as insurance, technology, defense, and industry.

Physics

Physics—the study of matter and energy, time and space, and their interactions and interconnections—is often regarded as the most fundamental of the natural sciences. An understanding of physics is essential for an understanding of many aspects of chemistry, which in turn provides a foundation for understanding a variety of biological processes. Physics also plays an important role in most branches of engineering; and the field of astronomy, essentially, is physics applied on the largest of scales. As science has progressed over the last century or so, the boundaries between the different scientific disciplines have become blurred and new interdisciplinary fields—such as chemical physics, biophysics, and engineering physics—have arisen. For these reasons, and because of the excellent training in critical thinking and problem solving provided by the study of physics, this subject represents an indispensable gateway to the other natural sciences and a valuable component of a liberal arts education.

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In Depth

Charles Paccione '13

As a pre-med student and violinist, Charles is pursuing all of his passions: science, philosophy, Asian studies, and music. He is actively engaged in an exciting and original research project exploring the benefits of meditation in the medical field.

Patrick Metzger
Patrick Metzger
Chattanooga, TN

A music concentration, but a physics adviser? It makes sense to Patrick Metzger. “I wanted to take a fair number of math, artificial intelligence, psychology, and computer science classes. If I had had a music adviser, my path would have been different.” Though he realized from his first year that he didn’t think like a physicist, he was nevertheless drawn to math and science—and treasured the advice his physicist don could provide. “In the sciences, it’s great to have the ability to cross mediums. It has everything to do with the real world.” That kind of creative, interdisciplinary thinking has led to some interesting conference projects. “I explored Tesla’s biography in physics and then wrote a choral piece about it. In another case, I got to write a piece about how entropy relates to evolution.” Then there’s the research on split-brain syndrome he did for a narrative neuropsychology course—looking at how the mind works by examining the novel A Scanner Darkly.

Megan Phillips
Megan Phillips
Sitka, AK

For Megan Phillips, college is about pushing herself. Over the years, her research at Sarah Lawrence has become increasingly complex. “Last semester,” she says, “I came up with a theoretical cure for AIDS. The project started when I walked into my don’s office and told him I wanted a challenge.”

Megan has also investigated pesticide use in war and looked at how factory farming has contributed to Avian flu—but not all of her classes have been in the sciences. For using your “whole brain,” she considers the College’s open curriculum an advantage. “Taking biology and art really ended up benefitting my work and giving me perspectives I wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she says. “I rediscovered my love of learning here.”

Her plans: “I want to eventually have a PhD in virology or genetics. Ideally, I want to do research.”

Zach Donovan
Zach Donovan
Brooklyn, NY

According to Zach Donovan, “Sarah Lawrence offered the richest and best academic environment I could imagine.” More subjectively, he says, “I just felt at home here.”

For Zach, feeling at home meant allowing his individual course of study to meander in interdisciplinary ways. “I wanted to study many non-intersecting subjects and make them intersect,” he says. Beginning his studies with creative writing, literature, and philosophy, Zach then leaned toward the social sciences before cementing his interest in computer science on Sarah Lawrence’s study abroad program in Oxford. “I’ve spent senior year shoring up my computer science curriculum for graduate school,” he says, “and exploring film production and theory.”

Already enrolled in a doctoral program in computer science, Zach has the confidence to match his goals. “Sarah Lawrence has forged and sharpened me to take on anything,” he says.

Joanne Kurtzberg ’72
Joanne Kurtzberg ’72
Physician, Scientist

In retrospect, it seems like a perfectly natural progression from the High School of Music and Art in New York City to Sarah Lawrence and then to New York Medical College. And Joanne Kurtzberg, director of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplant Program at Duke University Medical Center—an internationally recognized program dedicated to providing outstanding care and support to pediatric patients who can be helped by transplantation therapy—says that she would do it the same way all over again.

When she began her liberal arts courses at Sarah Lawrence, science and math were running a close secon to her first love, music. By the time she graduated in 1972, she knew medicine and not music would be her career.

W. Ian Lipkin ’74
W. Ian Lipkin MD ’74
Molecular Neurobiologist

“Sarah Lawrence gave me something critical to success in the long term: the confidence and the ability to think independently; to exploit serendipity; to be the ‘abnormal’ scientist who invents radical new theories.”

An internationally recognized expert in pathogen discovery, Ian Lipkin researches diseases of the central nervous system. He led the team that used unique molecular methods to identify the West Nile Virus as the cause of the encephalitis outbreak in New York State in 1999. Lipkin is also a pioneer in AIDS research. More recently, as a result of his work advising the Chinese government on dealing with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), he was asked to help run the first infectious disease center in China.

Joan Countryman ’62
Joan Countryman ’62
Educator, Author

“People shouldn’t assume that a traditional curriculum is the only option,” says Joan Countryman, reflecting on the cross-disciplinary opportunities she had at Sarah Lawrence. “I was interested in math and science, but I wouldn’t have concentrated in math if I’d gone anywhere else.”

After graduating from the College, Countryman earned a master’s from Yale University before settling down to teach mathematics for many years at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. Toward the end of her tenure there, she published Writing to Learn Mathematics, which explores narrative thinking as a tool for improving reasoning skills.

Moving from the classroom to administrative roles, Countryman served as head of Lincoln School in Providence, consultant and interim head of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, and interim head of the Atlanta Girls’ School before retiring in 2008.

“Sarah Lawrence encouraged me to make connections across disciplines, to think unconventionally outside the box, and to pursue my own interests open-mindedly.”

Science and Mathematics