Biochemists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes such as cell development, growth, and heredity. They work in laboratories, and most work full time.
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Biochemists typically do the following:
Biochemists also use electron microscopes, lasers, and other laboratory instruments and equipment to carry out their research. They use advanced technologies to conduct scientific experiments and analysis. For example, they use computer modeling software to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins and other molecules. Those involved in biotechnology research use chemical enzymes to synthesize recombinant DNA
Most biochemists work on research teams. Research projects are often interdisciplinary, and biochemists frequently work with experts in other fields, such as physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering. They work in basic and applied research. Basic research is conducted without any immediately known application; the goal is simply to expand human knowledge. Applied research is directed toward solving a particular problem.
Biochemists involved in basic research may study the genetic mutations in organisms that lead to cancer and other diseases. Others may study the evolution of plants and animals to understand how genetic traits are carried through successive generations. Biochemists who do applied research develop products and processes that improve our lives. For example, in medicine, biochemists and biophysicists develop tests used to detect diseases, genetic disorders, and other illnesses. They also develop new drugs and medications, such as those used to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
Applied research in biochemistry and biophysics has many uses outside of medicine. In agriculture, biochemists develop genetically engineered crops that are more resistant to drought, disease, insects, and other afflictions. Biochemists also develop alternative fuels, such as biofuels—renewable energy sources from plants. In addition, they develop ways to protect the environment and clean up pollution.
Biochemists need a Ph.D. to work in independent research and development positions. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders are qualified for some entry-level positions in biochemistry and biophysics. Most Ph.D. holders in biochemistry and biophysics have bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry or a related field, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or engineering. Many schools have bachelor degree programs in biochemistry, but few schools have bachelor degree programs in biophysics.
In addition to completing required courses in biology and chemistry, students must typically take courses in mathematics, physics, and computer science. Courses in mathematics and computer science are important for biochemists, who must be able to do complex data analysis. Most bachelor degree programs include required laboratory coursework. Additional laboratory coursework is excellent preparation for graduate school or for getting an entry-level position in industry. Students also can gain valuable laboratory experience through internships with prospective employers such as pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers. Ph.D. programs typically include two years of advanced coursework in topics such as toxicology, genetics, and proteomics (the study of proteins). Graduate students also spend a lot of time conducting laboratory research. It typically takes 4-to-6 years to earn a doctoral degree in biochemistry or biophysics.
Most biochemistry Ph.D. holders begin their careers in a temporary postdoctoral research position, which typically lasts 2-to-3 years. During their postdoctoral appointment, they work with experienced scientists as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research. Postdoctoral positions frequently offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to get a permanent position doing basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.
Biochemists must be able to conduct scientific experiments and analyses with accuracy and precision. They draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment. They typically work on research teams and need to be able to work well with others toward a common goal. Many also serve as team leaders and must be able to motivate and direct other team members. They regularly use complex equations and formulas in their work, and they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus and statistics. Scientific research involves substantial trial and error, and biochemists must not become discouraged in their work. Biochemists use scientific experiments and analysis to find solutions to complex scientific problems. They frequently give presentations and must be able to explain their research to others. They write memos, reports, and research papers that explain their findings. They typically receive greater responsibility and independence in their work as they gain experience. They may lead research teams and have control over the direction and content of projects.
Some biochemists move into managerial positions—often as natural sciences managers. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time on administrative tasks, such as preparing budgets and schedules.
Biochemists typically work in laboratories and offices to conduct experiments and analyze the results. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow safety procedures to avoid contamination.
The median annual wage of biochemists was $79,390 in May 2010. The lowest 10% earned less than $43,050, and the top 10% earned more than $142,420.