2014-2015 Biology Courses
First-Year Studies: Urban Ecology
Ecology is a scientific discipline that studies interactions between living organisms and their environment and processes governing how species are distributed, how they interact, and how nutrients and energy cycle through ecosystems. Although we may think of these processes occurring in “natural” areas with little to no human development, all of these processes still take place in environments heavily modified by humans, such as cities. This course will cover fundamental concepts in the discipline of ecology and then further explore how these patterns and processes are altered (sometimes dramatically) in urban environments. We will use examples from our local environment—the New York City metropolitan area—to understand ecological concepts in light of urbanization. Special attention will be paid to the ecology of the Hudson River, including field trips and work involving the Sarah Lawrence Center for the Urban River at Beczak.
General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution
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 process by which such advances in biological understanding are made. This 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.
Introduction to Genetics
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 molecular functions of genes and DNA—and how mutations in DNA can lead to physical abnormalities and diseases such as Down’s and Turner’s syndromes or hemophilia. Finally, we will discuss the role of genetics in influencing such complex phenotypes as behavior and intelligence. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.
Principles of Botany
Understanding the biology of plants is fundamental to understanding the complex web of life on Earth and its evolutionary history. Nearly all other organisms, including humans, rely on plants directly or indirectly for their food and oxygen. Consequently, plants are essential to our existence; by studying them in detail, we learn more about our own species and the world we inhabit. This course is an introductory survey of botany and is divided into three broad topics: 1) diversity of life, photosynthesis, respiration, and DNA/RNA; 2) structure, reproduction, and evolution; and 3) ecology and plant habitats. Seminars and textbook readings will be supplemented with a field trip to The New York Botanical Garden.
The Biology of Living and Dying
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.
From hit television shows such as CSI, Bones, 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 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 forensic biology 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 2013 decision Maryland v. King, which 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.
General Biology Series: Anatomy and Physiology
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. This course is intended to follow General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution and emphasizes anatomical and physiological aspects of life.
What biological processes led to the development of the incredible diversity of life that we see on Earth today? The process of evolution, or a change in the inherited traits in a population over time, is fundamental to our understanding of biology and the history of life on Earth. This course will introduce students to the field of evolutionary biology. We will interpret evidence from the fossil record, molecular genetics, systematics, and empirical studies to deepen our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. Topics covered include the genetic basis of evolution, phylogenetics, natural selection, adaptation, speciation, coevolution, and the evolution of behavior and life history traits. Successful completion of General Biology I: Cellular and Molecular Biology or the equivalent is recommended but not required.
General Biology Series: Brain and Behavior
In this second semester of General Biology, students will explore the foundations of neuroscience from intracellular communication to higher brain functions and behavior. After learning about how neurons function, including an in-depth review of the major neurotransmitters used for intercellular communication, we will sample a variety of functions of the brain, including sleep, feeding, sex and other motivated behaviors, learning, and memory. Brain anatomy will also be a focus of our work, including the regulation of the brain and the body through regulation of the endocrine system, autonomic nervous system, and even the immune system. We will also explore the evolution of behavior and, using a few key examples, look at how the brains of different animals carry out their specialized functions. Topics may include learning in the honey bee, sound localization in the owl, and echolocation in bats. Weekly labs explore brain anatomy and cellular organization of the brain, including basic histology to prepare brain tissue for examination in the microscope. We will also make use of new recording equipment to test EEG and function of the peripheral nervous system that is activated as the body prepares for action.
Humans are bathing in a sea of microbes; microbes coat our environments, live within our bodies, and perform functions both beneficial and detrimental to human wellbeing. This course will explore the biology of microorganisms, broadly defined as bacteria, archaea, viruses, and single-celled eukaryotes. We will study microbes at multiple scales, including the individual cell, the growing population, and populations interacting with one another or their environments. Microbial physiology, genetics, diversity, and ecology will be covered in depth. Particular emphasis will be given to the role of microbes in ecological processes and microbes that cause infectious disease in humans. Prerequisite: Successful completion of General Biology I: Cellular and Molecular Biology or permission of the instructor.
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.
Plant Systematics and Evolution
Understanding the diversity of plants and their evolutionary relationships is fundamental to understanding the complex web of life on Earth. Nearly all other organisms, including humans, rely on plants directly or indirectly for their food and oxygen. Consequently, plants are essential to our existence. By studying plants in detail, we learn more about our own species and the world we inhabit. This course is a survey of plant diversity; in it, you will gain a thorough understanding of the diverse morphology of plants and will acquire an understanding of phylogenetic relationships among them. You will be able to describe morphological structures of plants using botanical terminology and learn how to identify prominent plant families using diagnostic morphological characters and plant keys. Seminars and associated labs will be supplemented with independent field collections. Prerequisite: Principles of Botany, Introductory Biology, or an equivalent course or experience.