Crystallographers are fascinated by crystals, because crystals form the building blocks of so much of the world we live in. Professionals in this field must be patient and detail oriented. While computers can create 3D models of crystal structures, the crystallographer must be take the time to visualize and interpret those models.
Crystallographers must be collaborative and, often, find themselves working on cross-disciplinary teams. They must also be innovative, because they may be required to develop novel sample configurations, adapt their instruments to new applications, or adapt and create new software capabilities to handle unusual or difficult problems.
Typical Job Functions
Crystallography is the science that examines crystals, which can be found everywhere in nature—from salt to snowflakes to gemstones. They are part of a cadre of interdisciplinary scientists that work to understand diverse processes. Crystallographers use the properties and inner structures of crystals to determine the arrangement of atoms and generate knowledge that is used by chemists, physicists, biologists, and others.
Crystallographers are involved at the forefront of major discoveries in the life sciences, medicinal chemistry, and materials science. Crystallographers combine their multi-disciplinary backgrounds to address some of the most challenging questions in developing atomic-level insights into major biological processes, such as DNA repair, ribosome biogenesis, cell signaling, and cancer biology. Crystallographers are involved heavily in designing experiments and analyzing data to develop precise models of many of these biological processes.
Some crystallographers develop instrumentation and software for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing data, and for translating that data into crystal structure models. Some crystallographers maintain and develop archival databases at industrial and academic, nonprofit, and government laboratories.
Common duties for a crystallographers include:
- Conducting laboratory research in industrial, nonprofit institution, government, or academic laboratories
- Characterizing new compounds and materials to support patent claims
- Developing new software and hardware capabilities for data collection and analysis
- Providing customer support as an employee of a service laboratory or a sales or service representative of an instrument manufacturer
- Helping develop synthesis processes by monitoring product formation, purity, and identity
- Characterizing mineral formations to shed light on geological and human-caused processes
- Developing computer models and simulations of physical and biological phenomena
Professional-level crystallographers may pursue a teaching and/or research career in academia, or they may oversee a diffraction laboratory for a government agency, national laboratory, or industry. They may also support and train facility users, students, or customers or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data. After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, crystallographers may move into managing a suite of laboratories, or directing research programs.
Following are examples of career paths a crystallography professional may take:
- Research/Manufacturing: Crystal-growing specialists use a variety of techniques to produce crystalline forms of compounds. They may be experts in working with hard-to-crystallize materials, or they may grow crystals for use in computer chips, solar cells, optical components, or pharmaceutical products.
- Pharmaceutical/Biochemical Fields: The pharmaceutical and biochemical fields rely extensively on crystallographic studies. Proteins and other biological materials (including viruses) may be crystallized to aid in studying their structures and composition. Many important pharmaceuticals are administered in crystalline form, and detailed descriptions of their crystal structures provide evidence to verify claims in patents.
- Instrument Manufacturing: Employers hire crystallographers for customer sales and support functions, including instrument repair and helping customers with special projects. Staff crystallographers at national laboratories develop and maintain leading-edge research instruments and software capabilities.
- Forensics: Forensic laboratories use crystallography to investigate cases involving product adulteration or counterfeiting. They may identify minerals, metals, or other materials found at crime scenes. They may also identify corrosion products and other residues found at the site of an industrial accident to help verify the events leading up to the accident.
Most crystallographers have a graduate degree. Limited opportunities exist for those with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.
- Laboratory Technicians or Research Assistants: Require associate’s or bachelor's degree. Internships may help students or recent graduates with an interest in research to select an area of specialization for a graduate degree.
- Research and Supervisory Positions: Typically require a master's or doctoral degree, often with several years of postgraduate experience. Postdoctoral fellowships are one way to gain this experience.
- Teaching or Research Career: Professional-level crystallographers may pursue a teaching and/or research career in academia, or they may oversee a diffraction laboratory in industry or for a government agency or national laboratory. They may also support and train facility users, students, or customers or develop new capabilities for collecting and analyzing data.
- Managing Labs and Programs: After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, crystallographers may move into managing a suite of laboratories, or directing research programs.