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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 glanceImagine 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 dutiesDuties 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 environmentBiochemists work in a variety of locations including but not limited to: In the lab:
- Testing samples and conducting experiments
- Designing experimental protocols
- Calibrating instruments
- 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
- Sample collection
- Plot establishment and layout
Where to workThere 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 & requirementsIn 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:
- Environmental science