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A Day in the Life of a Biochemist

It would be wrong to call it a niche, since the science of biochemistry spans the study of all living things and provides the foundation for all of the life sciences. It would be right, however, to say that most biochemists are neck-deep in research. About 75% work in either basic or applied research; those in applied research take the fruits of basic research and employ them for the benefit of medicine, agriculture, veterinary science, environmental science, and manufacturing. Each of these fields offers safe harbor for the biochemist in search of a specialty, with clinical biochemists, for example, working in hospital laboratories and studying various tissues and body fluids to help them understand and treat diseases; and industrial biochemists, for another, involved in analytical research work such as checking the purity of food and beverages. Research biochemists find work in the labs of biotechnology companies; agricultural, medical, and veterinary institutes; and, in the case of half of all biochemists, universities. They study chemical reactions in metabolism, growth, reproduction, and heredity and apply techniques drawn from biotechnology and genetic engineering to help them in their research. The workday usually includes some laboratory duties, such as culturing, filtering, purifying, drying, weighing, and measuring substances using special instruments. Research goes to the study the effects of foods, drugs, allergens and other substances on living tissues. Many biochemists are also interested in molecular biology, the study of life at the molecular level and the study of genes and gene expression.

Paying Your Dues

Unlike chemists, who can find opportunities to enter the field upon completion of a Bachelor’s degree, biochemists traditionally hold a Doctor’s degree. Therefore, would-be biochemists have to complete an additional two to four years of study to earn their M.D. on top of their B.S. After finishing school, most biochemists embark on their career in the laboratory in the capacity of research technician. Biochemists usually work forty to fifty hours per week, with occasional weekend and evening work to meet deadlines or to attend and observe experiments.

Present and Future

In the early 20th Century, Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins made many important contributions to biochemical research methods, winning the Nobel Prize for his discovery of vitamins along the way. His discovery that small quantities of specific complex chemicals in the diet are vital for health was instrumental to the refinement of vitamin additives in food. Employment is expected to increase faster than the average through the year 2005. Expected expansion in research related to health issues, such as AIDS, cancer, and the Human Genome project should result in growth. The outlook is best for biochemists with advanced degrees. The Federal Government funds a lot of the research. Anticipated budget tightening should lead to smaller increases in research expenditures. If the number of newly trained scientists continues to increase at the same rate, both new and experienced scientists will experience greater difficulty winning research grants.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

While the level of work may resemble an apprenticeship in its early stages, most biochemists receive paid holidays and vacations, insurance, and a retirement plan when they become full-time employees. In the early stages, a biochemist’s experience can define whether the future holds government, educational and private-sector work.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Large private companies may give employees bonuses, stock options, paid travel and expense accounts; university and government posts can attract sizable grants to fund research.

TEN YEARS OUT

By the tenth year, biochemists have felt the satisfaction of finding out new things and making new discoveries that make a difference to fellow human beings. They are very unlikely to lose their jobs during periods of recession, and most are employed on long-term research projects. And since biochemistry is an interdisciplinary science, biochemists can take their skills laterally to jobs in other biological sciences