Chemical processes in the body can make the difference between health and illness. Chemical cell division signals going haywire, for example, can cause cancerous tumors to emerge.
Biochemistry is an academic discipline that investigates chemical interactions and reactions within living organisms, such as how cells break down carbohydrates in order to release energy. This scientific field, a fusion between biology and chemistry, is essential for the development of immunization vaccines and therapeutic medications.
Without the assistance of biochemists, creation of the various COVID-19 vaccines that are being used to fight the coronavirus pandemic would not have been feasible.
Tania Lupoli, an assistant professor of chemistry at New York University who conducts a significant amount of biochemical research in her laboratory, says biochemistry is closely related to the following academic disciplines: organic chemistry, molecular biology, materials chemistry and pharmacology. It is also linked to the practice of medicine, she says, noting that someone is well-suited to be a biochemist if he or she is intensely curious, enjoys science, loves solving puzzles and is fascinated by how diseases are treated with drugs.
For example, someone might become a biochemist because he or she wants to understand the mechanisms of chemotherapy and develop better cancer medicines, Lupoli says.
Kristina Harris Petersen, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at New York Medical College, notes that undergraduates contemplating a college major in biochemistry may also want to consider a neuroscience or environmental science major.
Petersen suggests that job opportunities for biochemists should be plentiful in the near future.
“Particularly in the current climate, given the push for research to address the global health crisis, job prospects are good for biochemists,” she wrote in an email. “Funding for research projects fluctuate, but hopefully with the push for cutting edge research, government funds (e.g., NIH grants) and private funding will become more readily available.”
Biochemistry degrees often lead to lucrative occupations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019, the median salary among biochemists and biophysicists was $94,490. Independent research and development jobs within this area require a Ph.D degree, according to the bureau.
Biochemists frequently conduct research at pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies.
“The lifeblood of the biotechnical and biopharmaceutical industry is the continued development of new medicines, and is, in turn, reliant on the foundation of understanding biochemistry to create therapeutics that improve quality of life for patients,” Elizabeth Thompson, group vice president of clinical development and external search at Horizon Therapeutics — a biopharmaceutical company that focuses on delivering medicines that address rare and rheumatic diseases — wrote in an email. “With this knowledge, scientists can examine how to carefully and thoughtfully design large-scale experiments: clinical trials in humans.”
Biochemists could become professors at colleges or universities, and they sometimes work for research institutes, consulting firms, wholesale manufacturers, and diagnostic or forensic laboratories. They could also work at federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
Biochemists may also work as science journalists or do other types of science writing, such as authoring science textbooks. They are sometimes hired as advertising or marketing copywriters, since they have the technical training necessary to accurately describe cutting-edge biochemical products. They can also work as technical salespeople who sell biochemical technologies to hospitals and health care clinics.
Individuals with only a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry sometimes work as science educators at primary and secondary schools. Someone who pairs a biochemistry undergraduate degree with a different graduate degree has a variety of options. For example, someone who studies biochemistry in college could head to law school and become a patent lawyer, to medical school to become a doctor or to veterinary school to pursue a career as a veterinarian.
Here are a few examples of jobs where a biochemistry degree might come in handy. Some of these professions require specialized education in a field besides biochemistry.
— Agricultural scientist.
— Biochemistry professor.
— Biochemical engineer.
— Biological or biomedical engineer.
— Chemical engineer.
— Cosmetics developer.
— Federal regulator of biochemical products.
— Fermentation scientist.
— Food researcher and developer.
— Laboratory technician.
— Laboratory scientist.
— Oil and gas scientist.
— Patent lawyer.
— Petroleum engineer.
— Pharmaceutical researcher.
— Process engineer.
— Science writer.
— Science teacher.
Harris Petersen says creativity is a must in the biochemistry profession. “People often underestimate the importance of creativity within successful scientists,” she explains. “In order to push the boundaries of what is known to explore and attempt to assess the unknown, one must be grounded in the information that is currently known, but also be capable of thinking outside the box.”
Mark Coster, who has a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry, says a biochemist’s workday is usually spent in a lab conducting research.
“The specifics will depend on the current project, but most of the time, you will study the effects of chemical processes on the human organism,” he wrote in an email. “The gist is to observe and analyze how life works on a molecular level. By gaining knowledge and data about the tiny processes invisible to the naked eye, you will begin to grasp the big picture. An entirely new perspective opens up when you realize that vital processes happen at a molecular level! That’s what makes biochemistry so fascinating, but also very challenging.”
Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.
More from U.S. News