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A biochemical engineer is someone who is responsible for the development of new chemical products that can be used by a multitude of companies and individuals. Their job includes researching, developing, documenting, and producing products that are derived from a combination of organic and lab-made materials that can benefit people and society at large.
These products stretch across every aspect of society. Items created can be agricultural chemicals used to treat and develop foods for public consumption. They can be petroleum-based products, such as oils, plastics, paints, or other resins. They can be fibrous products, such as papers or textiles. They can be cleaning products such as detergents and soaps, or perfumes and cosmetics. Indeed, most of the products that people come into contact with on an everyday basis are developed through the biochemical engineering process.
Each day, the engineer juggles several important duties. First and foremost is design work. They must conduct studies on cells, proteins, viruses, or other biological substances to determine optimal conditions for growth or inhibitors that can stop or kill. They must develop and conduct experiments to observe interactions of raw materials with each other and in specific environments. Lastly, they must develop processes for building new compounds from these materials that can be mass-produced for the general public’s use.
In addition to design work, the biochemical engineer will need to work with others in process and product development. They will need to work with research personnel and manufacturing personnel to prepare information about products that are developed – safety sheets, manuals, and operating procedures and directions. They also need to work with fellow chemists and biologists to develop new technologies and products so as to continue innovation.
Lastly, they must be responsible for documenting their work and their results. Biochemical engineers must make sure that the results of any research and experiments and collaborations are properly captured and documented. Continued experiments help to determine what does and does not work with various materials, and reviewing past results can enable engineers to determine new methods to attempt in the future. Ideally, they will keep databases that house report data from past experiments.
In addition to maintaining data repositories that allow for analysis of the various compounds worked with and the resultant effects, engineers can use previous data to outline possible future models. They can alter certain variables – quantity of ingredients, exposure to different temperatures and environments, order of ingredient addition – and simulate the potential results on computers to determine if there is adequate compound development. If the engineer can see adequate progress in a computer simulation, they can then proceed with a live experiment, simulating the same conditions, to see if the theories hold well in practical application.
Upon being hired, recent graduates will usually work with experienced biochemical engineers and will receive formal seminar training from their new employer. As a new engineer is able to gain experience, they will be assigned more complex projects to develop new designs, solve complex problems, and make decisions that are in line with a department’s, agency’s, or company’s overall goals and objectives.
The most common everyday work environment for the entry-level employee in this field is a laboratory or manufacturing plant floor. Often, the engineer is working with hazardous chemicals or materials that require extra care and attention to ensure a safe work environment and safely developed products. However, in some senior positions, the office can more resemble a white-collar office environment.
From an educational standpoint, an applicant for this position must have a very impressive background. A bachelor’s degree is the first requirement, with a necessary concentration in biology, chemistry, engineering, or a combination thereof. During the course of undergraduate studies, there should also be a strong background in both mathematics and science courses - algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. This educational resume can serve as a springboard not just for this field, but also for environmental management, medicine, applied mathematics, or other scientific research fields.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree, some type of internship or research position is also favourably looked upon. Many positions with large firms in research and development, or with government health agencies, will also require a master’s degree, and in some cases a doctoral degree within biochemistry or chemical engineering.
Continuing education is also needed in this position, both on safety procedures and on recent scientific developments. A lot of this continuing education may be self-directed, by keeping up with journals, papers, and other recently published documents that discuss new chemical processes or combinations. In addition, engineers are expected to publish their own accomplishments for public discussion within the field of biochemistry.
There are few areas untouched by biochemical engineering. Biochemical engineers either created or improved many products people take for granted such as medicine, gasoline, paper and fertilizer. Brewing a better beer is one of the many problems biochemical engineers may be asked to investigate.
Brenda Parker is a biochemical engineer in the middle of her postgraduate studies. She describes how she came to study engineering and why her work helps the environment.
Combining their knowledge of biology, chemistry and engineering, biochemical engineers create solutions for materials, systems and processes that interact with living organisms and biomaterials.