About Superlab

Why This Page?

The answer to that question is quite simple. The course seems to be unique. At least I have never learned of another quite like it. If you do know of one please let me know.

A Bit of History

In the early 1960's Haverford's curriculum was traditional. In the upper division years students took courses in Advanced Organic with laboratory, Qualitative Organic Analysis, and Advanced Analytical Chemistry Laboratory. These courses had no formal relationship to each other. Through the 60's the faculty increasingly found this to be an unsatisfactory situation, since it did not reflect the way that the best chemists operated. Most dissatisfied was Harmon Dunathan driven by his own experience which saw him evolve from an organic chemist attempting to synthesize cyclobutadiene for his thesis project to a bio-organic chemist interested in B12 chemistry and making significant research contributions in that area.

Over the same period of this growth in dissatisfaction the department was developing a more modern instrument pool. At the beginning of the 60's the department had only a Beckman DU spectrophotometer, a Geiger counter, and a polarograph. Over a period of 6 years it added an IR, an NMR (donated by an analytical laboratory which was being shut down), and an MS of very limited mass range. (This last was purchased at an auction.)

The combination of the dissatisfaction and the improved instrument pool in 1967 led the department to drop all advanced laboratory courses and to replace them with a two semester long integrated laboratory called "Laboratory in Chemical Structure and Reactivity". It was meant to be a project laboratory with students working in groups and with the literature as its textbook, in sum a broad introduction to how research is done. Ideally projects were to involve two or more the the sub-disciplines of chemistry. The syllabus in those early years reflected Harmon's broad interests in synthetic organic chemistry, physical organic chemistry, and bio-organic chemistry and my interest in reaction mechanisms and uses of radioisotopes.

As so often happens the Law of Unintended Consequences came into play, this time in good ways. First of all, with the undergraduate's characteristic ability to sum up succinctly the essence of a course they soon dubbed this course "Superlab". In addition the laboratory proved to provide a strong bonding experience for the chemistry majors. One manifestation of this was the evolution of the office of the GRAND WAZOO which appeared in 1972. It began with the custom of the students selecting a "Chem Hack of the Week" and then to the designation of one of their number as the Grand Wazoo. While the Grand Wazoo's initial duty was to choose the Chem Hack of the Week, the office soon went beyond that. Additional responsibilities include overseeing the department's social life, organizing student participation in the Distinguished Visitors program, and assigning chemistry majors as tutors to underclassmen having difficulty with courses.

As chemists have become more aware of the great value of interdisciplinary work the Chemistry Department has developed closer links with the Biology Department and a concentration in Biochemistry has been designed. As a consequence Superlab has changed. The first semester now emphasizes organic chemistry and the link with biology. The second semester emphasizes physical chemistry.

Student Response

Though students report spending up to 20 hours a week on the course and rate it as easily the most demanding that they have taken most rate it as the best course that they have taken here.



Students do up to five projects in groups. The first projects are are done by all the groups. Criteria for inclusion of a project in this group is the instructors judgement that the project has a high probability of success, and that it introduces new bench and instrumental techniques to the students. 2/3 of the semester is allocated to these projects. The last third of the semester is devoted to an independent project chosen from a list provided by members of the department. Some of these are related to research being done in the department. Students are required to give oral reports on some of their work and written reports in the form of journal articles on all of them.

To see a list of the aims of the course click here.

To see brief summaries of a few projects used in this course click here.

To return to the Main page click here.