Biochemist


Biochemistry is a combination of biology and chemistry. More specifically, biochemists study biological processes in micro-organisms, plants, and animals. They look at how living organisms function at the subcellular and molecular levels and apply their research to a number of industries, including agriculture, medicine, energy, and manufacturing. Biochemists often work in interdisciplinary teams and are involved in a wide range of activities, from research and teaching to patent law.

At a glance

Imagine you are peering into the ocular lenses of your bench-top microscope examining a series of yeast colonies you have grown on an agar plate. You are a biochemist working in a lab researching yeast strains. This lab is part of the research and development division of a large petrochemical company, and part of the lab's focus is finding viable alternative energy sources. That's where you come in: researchers have found that yeast can be used to manufacture the biofuel ethanol. The petrochemical company already blends ethanol extracted from corn and wheat into the premium gasoline it sells to retailers, but is interested in alternative sources or extraction methods. The company has hired you to continue the research into specific yeast strains for possible use in the commercial production of ethanol. As a biochemist, you are an expert on yeast and have spent years studying the biological processes of different strains. In this lab, you are starting to build a bridge between theoretical research and practical application. Since you already know that yeast produces ethanol, you are interested in understanding the process better, which could determine if yeast is a viable option for manufacturing ethanol for fuel. You and your team of researchers will run a series of experiments under different conditions, manipulating variables to see if you can increase the levels of ethanol produced by yeast grown in large fermentors. You know it will take many more years of research and experimentation before the energy industry could use yeast to produce ethanol on an industrial scale, but your initial experiments here are a step toward that possibility.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a biochemist:
  • Study the chemical processes that occur within individual cells or processes such as cell growth and division, which affect entire organisms.
  • Perform chemical analyses using sophisticated instruments and techniques.
  • Research new techniques for improving products and processes.
  • Establish process standards by developing methods and standards procedures.
  • Test and evaluate the quality and safety of products and materials.
  • Test the effects of drugs and toxins on human and animal cells.
  • Analyze data and conduct literature research and review.
  • Prepare or supervise the preparation of scientific reports and papers based on experimental data and observations.
  • Write proposals and grant applications for research funding.
  • Manage laboratories, including supervising the work of technicians and students.

Work environment

Biochemists work in a variety of locations including but not limited to: In the lab:
  • Testing samples and conducting experiments
  • Designing experimental protocols
  • Calibrating instruments
In the office:
  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
  • Researching new technology and advancements in biochemistry, and consulting with other biochemistry professionals
In the field:
  • Sample collection
  • Plot establishment and layout

Where to work

There are a number of places biochemists can find employment. They include:
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Biotechnology firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Agrochemical companies
  • Forensic labs
  • Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing

Education & requirements

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a biochemist is a university degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are considering a career as a biochemist, the following programs are most applicable:
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Environmental science
Certification is not mandatory for biochemists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations such as their provincial association for professional biologists. If you are a high school student considering a career as a biochemist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics

Role Model

Tom Noland

His father was a printer and his mother was a baker. "Growing up, I really didn’t have any scientific mentors.” Despite this, Tom Noland says he always had a strong interest in plants, especially their physiology and biochemistry. "Essentially, nothing happens in the growth and development of a plant without biochemistry.” Tom developed his understanding of biochemistry by completing an undergraduate degree in forestry, a master’s in forestry, and, finally, a Ph.D. in plant science. All this led him to his position with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources as a tree biochemist. Today, Tom splits his time between the office and the field. In winter, he can be found working primarily at his desk writing proposals, crafting research papers, and analyzing data. During summer, Tom spends more time in the field collecting samples or measuring tree growth or development on forest plots. Tom enjoys being able to work outdoors, despite having to be out in some harsh weather. "A bad day out in the field is still better than a good day in the office.” Tom also thrives on the diversity and challenges his job offers. "This week alone, I’ve been interviewed by the media about a new bio-refinery being built in Ottawa and then I’ve been in the field helping with an environmental audit.” Juggling the responsibilities of several projects is something Tom is used to. "I usually have two to three major projects and about one to two minor ones all going at any given time.” The average length of each project is three to five years. One of the biggest drawbacks of Tom’s job is finding the funding necessary to continue work on his projects. As a scientist for the government, Tom is constantly faced with a shrinking research budget. "I spend a lot more time than I used to trying to acquire funding.” Having to look externally for research funding takes away from Tom’s research time, which is the backbone of his work. However, he’s not discouraged—he realizes how important his work is. "As a government scientist, I don’t work for myself. I work for everybody else because the implications of my research can affect the lives of everybody else. It is essential.”