Is a Broad Scientific Discipline

Biochemistry is the study of the structure, composition, and chemical reactions of substances in living systems. Biochemistry emerged as a separate discipline when scientists combined biology with organic, inorganic, or physical chemistry and began to study such topics as how living things obtain energy from food, the chemical basis of heredity, and what fundamental changes occur in disease. Biochemistry includes the sciences of molecular biology; immunochemistry; neurochemistry; and bioinorganic, bioorganic, and biophysical chemistry.

Has a Wide Range of Applications

Biochemistry is applied to medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine. In food science, biochemists research ways to develop abundant and inexpensive sources of nutritious foods, determine the chemical composition of foods, develop methods to extract nutrients from waste products, or invent ways to prolong the shelf life food products. In agriculture, biochemists study the interaction of herbicides with plants. They examine the structure-activity relationships of compounds, determine their ability to inhibit growth, and evaluate the toxicological effects on surrounding life.

Biochemistry spills over into pharmacology, physiology, microbiology, and clinical chemistry. In these areas, a biochemist may investigate the mechanism of a drug action; engage in viral research; conduct research pertaining to organ function; or use chemical concepts, procedures, and techniques to study the diagnosis and therapy of disease and the assessment of health.

Work in the field of biochemistry is often related to toxicology. Rogene Henderson, senior scientist and supervisor of the Biochemical Toxicology Group at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, does research to understand ways in which organic compounds in the body are changed by enzymes into toxic metabolites. Henderson focuses on determining the health effects of inhaled pollutants. She develops chemical analytical techniques to detect pollutants and their metabolites in body tissues and fluids, uses mathematics to describe the relationships between the air and body concentrations of these chemicals or their metabolites, and determines how these concentrations change with time.

Is Interacting With Scientists from Many Disciplines

Real-world problems seldom come neatly packaged for one discipline to study, says Henderson. For example, our institute collaborated with the Department of Energy to investigate the health effects of an increased number of diesel-powered cars on the road. To address this problem, we needed engineers, aerosol scientists, veterinarians, analytical chemists, pathologists, and mathematicians as well as biochemists to work as a team. In another scenario, Henderson explains that she often interacts with people outside of her organization, for example, those who sponsor her work. She adds, Much of my work is related to regulation of air pollutants, and the research that I do is often audited by those who have an interest in the regulatory process.

David Green, senior research investigator in cardiovascular drug discovery, echoes the sentiment that interaction with others is an integral part of the job. Green specializes in enzymology; he identifies and characterizes enzymes as drug discovery targets. Green states, My projects vary, but a common element is working with people from different disciplines physiology or medicinal chemistry, for example to find a compound that can be used in clinical trials. Green says that he finds interacting with other scientists the best part of his job.

The underlying principle of biochemistry is understanding the structure of living systems. By understanding the structure of something, a scientist has a vital start to understanding its function. As an associate professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jamie Williamson undertook the study of the structures of virus-producing proteins in order to supply other researchers with the information needed to develop ways (drugs) to control the action of the proteins and, hence, the virus.

Williamson says, This exchange of information is one of the most gratifying things about being a researcher. The information and insight that you possess makes you a valuable scientist. So, the more you share your information, the better. Green explains, The desire to discover truths about nature and provide products that can improve the quality of peoples lives is what has driven me in my work.

Studying the cell and chemistry of life results in valuable contributions being made in medicine, industry, and society. This knowledge is used in fighting illness and improving the quality of life, making the field interesting, challenging, rewarding, and full of opportunity. Williamson explains, Biochemistry is a vast, huge field. Although we already understand much about how cells work, we really have just scratched the surface. The field is wide open.

Work Description

Biochemists study the chemical components and processes of living systems plants, insects, viruses, microorganisms, and mammals to explain how and why chemical reactions occur. Their work contributes to many fields of science.

Working Conditions

Biochemists work in modern research laboratories that stimulate creative work. Often they interact with scientists and specialists from other fields because their research is tied to another discipline. Biochemistry´s application to other fields and its focus on improving the quality of our lives means that laboratory research is guided by strict guidelines. The results often are presented to others who have an outside interest in the work.

Places of Employment

Colleges and universities employ the majority of biochemists as teachers or researchers in schools of arts and sciences, medicine, engineering, pharmacy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and agriculture. The Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency are just a few of the government agencies that employ biochemists specializing in basic research analyzing food, drugs, air, water, waste, or animal tissue. Industries that produce pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, foods, feeds, and consumer products also employ biochemists in research as well as in areas outside the lab such as marketing, management, science information, technical writing, and editing. Drug companies employ biochemists to research the causes of disease and to develop drugs to combat these diseases. Biotechnology companies employ biochemists in research quality control, clinical research, manufacturing, and information systems with applications to the environment, energy, human health care, agriculture, and animal health. Some biochemists work in hospitals.

Personal Characteristics

Biochemists are curious about the chemical origins of life, the cell, the effects of organisms on the cell, and how altering conditions can improve life on earth. They are creative, imaginative, hardworking individuals who enjoy interacting with other scientists to discover applications for their work. Perseverance is a key to success. Because they often work in teams, biochemists must be cooperative and able to work well with others. Oral and written communication skills are essential. Biochemists usually establish an area of expertise, but diversity and flexibility are essential when working with other disciplines.

Education and Training

Preparing for a career in this field requires earning a bachelors degree in biochemistry or chemistry with specialties in cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, biophysics, and biochemical methods. A bachelors degree in biology with more emphasis on chemistry, physics, and mathematics than may be required of a biology major, coupled with a biochemistry course and lab work, will also provide a foundation for entering the field. Some universities offer a one-year program after undergraduate school for training in specialized laboratory techniques. Researchers and companies consider this program extremely valuable. At some universities, students can work simultaneously towards a bachelors degree and a certificate for completing work in cell culture, genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology, in vitro cell culture, or DNA sequencing and synthesis. Positions that involve teaching in a college or directing research require at least a masters degree, preferably a doctorate.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities are good for skilled professionals trained in this field. The field is expanding and growth is expected in industry, especially in genetic research.

For More Information

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
9650 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20816
(301) 530-7145

What You Can Do Now

Consult with a faculty advisor and choose your courses carefully. Seek opportunities that provide on-the-job experience in a biochemistry laboratory through co-ops, internships, or research programs sponsored for undergraduates. Consider whether employment opportunities undergraduate school that call for skilled workers in basic research or teaching precollege science are what you prefer; or whether going on to graduate school and pursuing opportunities for directing research, working on state-of-the-art projects, or teaching at the college level is more to your liking.