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Biochemistry as a Career

What is biochemistry?

Biochemistry is the 'Chemistry of Life'
It is central to all areas of the Biological or Life Sciences. The aim is to provide an understanding of every aspect of the structure and function of living things at the molecular level. It is a practical laboratory science that applies the molecular approaches of chemistry to the vast variety of biological systems.Biochemists work at all levels and with all types of biological organisms, ranging from biomolecules to man. There are close links with other specialist life sciences, such as Cell Biology, Genetics, Microbiology, Molecular Biology, Physiology and Pharmacology. In fact, in many cases the distinctions between these disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred. They use biochemical techniques and biochemists work in all these areas. Biochemistry offers the tremendous challenge of seeking to understand the most fundamental of life's processes at the molecular level, and to utilise this knowledge for the benefit of mankind. You will have read, for example, how biochemists, working with colleagues in other disciplines, have developed the new technologies of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering. These have enabled the production of therapeutically important human proteins such as insulin and blood clotting factors by cloning procedures, thus avoiding costly, time-consuming and inefficient isolation of these molecules from biological sources; the identification and possible remedying of genetic problems; and the use of DNA fingerprinting in forensic science.

What does a biochemist do?

Biochemists identify biological problems then develop and apply appropriate techniques to solve them at the molecular level
Biochemists study the most basic of life processes; for example, identifying the way in which DNA, which carries the genetic information, is transferred between cells and can be manipulated. This has led to the development of new technologies such as Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering. The resulting recombinant DNA technology has formed the basis of modern biotechnology (e.g. production of human insulin), medical developments (e.g. prenatal diagnosis and genetic counselling) and forensic science (e.g. DNA fingerprinting).DNA directs the production of proteins. These have diverse functions, such as catalysing biological reactions (enzymes), carrying oxygen round the body (haemoglobin), protecting us from infection (antibodies) and holding us together (collagen). Using both simple and high-technology methods, biochemists work out how these proteins function. Biochemists also develop methods for making use of proteins, such as enzymes in biotechnology and antibodies in hormone analysis.With knowledge of the basic molecular mechanisms, biochemists study how life processes are integrated to allow individual cells to function and interact to form complex organisms. They work with all sorts of organisms, from viruses and bacteria to plants and man.These are just a few of the areas. It would take a whole book, in fact many books, to do justice to the multitude of roles of biochemists.

How do I become a biochemist?

  1. Do you have a curiosity about the living world?
  2. Do you want to understand what makes it all work?
  3. Do you enjoy chemistry and its application to biology?
If so, biochemistry could be for you
Biochemists are employed at all levels, from school leavers to experienced researchers with Ph.D. degrees. It is possible to enter as a laboratory technician straight from school. If so, you would usually continue to study part-time (e.g. for a BTEC qualification on 'day release') while working. A degree is now becoming the norm for employment. After studying science - chemistry, but not biology, is essential - at school or college (e.g. A-levels, GNVQ, Scottish Highers) you can enter a degree course in biochemistry or a closely related subject. Virtually every university in the country will offer a degree course in biochemistry, or one in which biochemistry is a major component. It is important to read the prospectuses carefully to find out what each course involves. The emphasis can be quite different depending on factors such as the other degree programmes available. Many universities offer sandwich courses, which give the opportunity to spend a year working in industry. Because biochemistry is a research-based discipline many graduates continue into post-graduate training. This can involve taught courses, such as a specialist M.Sc. (usually one year, e.g. in Clinical Chemistry, Forensic Science or Molecular Parasitology), or research towards writing a thesis for an M.Phil. (one or two years) or a Ph.D. (three or four years). Holders of these degrees usually go on to be the researchers of the future.

Who employs biochemists?

Biochemists work in many walks of life - in industry, hospitals, agriculture, research institutes, education and associated areas. There are many areas of everyday life as diverse as medical products and diagnostics, new food and its safety, crop improvement, cosmetics and forensic science that owe their development or even existence to biochemists

Pharmaceutical, food, brewing, biotechnology and agrochemical companies all need and employ biochemists to develop new products and to monitor the production, quality control and safety of existing ones.

Hospitals, public health laboratories and medical research institutes, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, all require biochemists. Here they provide a diagnostic service, carrying out tests on blood, urine and other body fluids, alongside researching the underlying causes of disease and the methods of treatment.

Agriculture and the Environment
Biochemists and biotechnologists, who often have a biochemistry degree, working in agriculture have been responsible for many developments, such as pest-resistant crops, improvements in crop yields and tomatoes that keep better. They also monitor the environment. Employers include seed companies, local government, the Civil Service and water authorities.

All levels of education offer prospects for biochemists. The combination of biology and chemistry, along with the training in numerical and analytical skills that is given in any area of science, makes biochemistry ideal for teaching throughout the school age range. There are also opportunities for more advanced teaching, usually associated with research, in universities and colleges, and medical, dental and veterinary schools.

Away from Science
A science background can be an excellent starting point for many other careers. Biochemistry is a numerate subject that develops analytical thinking, creativity in problem solving, and the ability to handle large amounts of complex information - skills required in jobs in all walks of life including, for example, sales and marketing, accountancy and finance, journalism, and patent work. Biochemists have become successful popular
authors and even a national president!

Why study biochemistry?

Those who make a career in science find it endlessly fascinating and very rewarding intellectually
There is a large demand for scientists - the Government wants more scientists and technologists in all walks of life to take advantage of recent advances in knowledge. Job prospects are good - the low unemployment rate of new biochemistry graduates compares well with that for biological sciences as a whole and for new graduates overall [First destinations of students leaving higher education institutions, 1995/96:- Higher Education Statistics Agency].

What do biochemistry graduates do?

The information on initial job positions shown in the Figure was obtained from the annual survey performed by the Biochemical Society on First degree students who graduated in biochemistry in 1998 from colleges and universities in the UK
More details can be found here. The largest proportion of new graduates moved on to further biochemical study or training, mainly registering for MSc and PhD degrees. Experience suggests that the majority of these will eventually make a career in scientific research. Of students completing MSc and PhD degrees in 1998 less than 2% were unplaced.Those entering careers based directly on their biochemical training were the second largest group. Many went in industrial research in the areas already mentioned. About a quarter of these jobs were in non-laboratory work requiring a biochemical background, such as management, sales or marketing in science-based industry, information science or editorial work.A significant number either trained for, or took, graduate jobs requiring no specific scientific knowledge, such as accountancy, retail or general management or the civil service, showing the good general employment prospects. Only 4% of students were known to be unplaced 8 months after graduating and were actively seeking employment. Others were taking time out, for instance, to travel, to bring up a family, or working in temporary jobs whilst evaluating their longer-term careers or were overseas students returning home.

Which Bioscience do I want to study?

Pharmacology is an exciting branch of experimental science concerned with the development of new drugs. It involves studying the workings of biologically-active compounds on the body and assessing how the body acts on them. Pharmacologists should not be confused with pharmacists, who prepare and dispense drugs. Pharmacology plays a vital role in the discovery of new medicines that can prevent premature death and improve the quality of life for millions of people and animals around the world. If you choose to study pharmacology at university, you will learn about the causes of disease, how the body works, how drugs work and how they are developed into new and effective treatments. Pharmacologists work in clinical and non-clinical areas, within and outside laboratories, in the pharmaceutical industry, research institutes, universities and regulatory bodies. Some use their qualifications as a general biological science degree and work in broader areas such as teaching, sales and marketing, and science communications.

British Pharmacological Society
16 Angel Gate
City Road
London EC1V 2PT

Physiology is the study and understanding of how the living body works. Its scope is as diverse as the adaptation of animals to environmental extremes and mechanisms by which ions cross cell membranes. Physiologists investigate, for instance, how the heart beats, or how the brain works or how the fertilized egg develops into an embryo. To achieve this the physiologist works closely with other disciplines such as biophysics, biochemistry, pharmacology, genetics and immunology, placing findings in the context of the living animal. Physiologists study function at the molecular level in individual cells, they try to integrate this information into an understanding of the function of organs, of the systems of which these organs are a part and finally, into an understanding of how the whole animal works. It is this integrated aspect, this concern with the wholeness of the living creature, together with its relevance to our own bodies, which places physiology at the centre of biological and medical science.

The Physiological Society
PO Box 11319
London WC1E 7JF
Tel: 020 7631 1459
Fax: 020 7631 1462

Immunology is the study of the cells and molecules that defend us against invasion by disease-causing viruses and bacteria. The importance of our immune system is demonstrated by the devastation caused by diseases such as AIDS where the immune system is destroyed. By understanding how the different parts of the immune system work together we can prevent disease by developing vaccines. We are just beginning to understand how to harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer. The immune system is a powerful weapon and sometimes the fine checks which keeps it under control can become unbalanced. Immunologists are working to understand how to re-educate the immune system so that we will have effective treatments for conditions such as allergies and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, and will have better ways to prevent organ rejection following transplants. Veterinary immunologists are working to keep animals healthier.

British Society for Immunology
Triangle House
Broomhill Road
London SW18 4HX
Tel: 020 8875 2400
Fax: 020 8875 2424
[email protected]

Microbiology is the study of microorganisms - bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae and viruses - which affect every aspect of life on Earth. Microorganisms are found in a wide range of habitats and the job opportunities for microbiologists reflect this diversity of life. Environmental microbiologists study microorganisms where they naturally occur to investigate their potential use in areas such as crop protection and bioremediation. The biotechnology industry is largely based on harnessing the activities of microorganisms to manufacture useful products. Many of the foods and drinks we take for granted are the products of microbial activity. However, not all microorganisms are beneficial and we need to protect ourselves from the activities of those that pose a threat to our well-being. Microbiologists play a part in monitoring and controlling infectious disease. The knowledge gained from fundamental microbiology research underpins developments in the new molecular technologies.

Careers Department
Society for General Microbiology
Marlborough House
Basingstoke Road
Spencers Wood,
Reading RG7 1AE
Tel: 0118 988 1821
Fax: 0118 988 5656
[email protected]

Nutritional Science
This subject is concerned with the scientific understanding of how the dietary supply of nutritional macro- and micronutrients maintain the health and well-being of both man and animals. Considerable advances are currently being made in our understanding of the mechanisms, by which nutrients regulate function, by the application of the techniques of molecular biology. Nutritional science is the foundation of dietetics and makes an important contribution to human and veterinary practice. A developing area is Public Health Nutrition where sound, scientifically based advice is made available to the community and governments. The nutritional scientist may make a career in research, or, with further biochemical training, become a public health nutritionist or work in the food industry or retail trade as an adviser on good nutrition (for man, agricultural and domestic animals). Many of the available courses in Nutrition are taught jointly with Dietetics, clinical training being added to nutrition as a necessary basis for becoming a registered dietitian.

The Nutrition Society
10 Cambridge Court
210 Shepherds Bush Road
London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7602 0228
Fax: 020 7602 1756
[email protected]

Genetics is the study of genes; the way in which they function as the blueprint for cells and organisms, the way in which genetic information is inherited and may be experimentally manipulated, and the way in which genes respond to environmental influences in expressing their information content. Because of the central role of the genome and genes in biological systems, Geneticists are at the heart of biological research, in diagnosing and treating disease, improving crops and farm animals to feed the world's population, developing new antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products, conserving endangered species and preserving our environment.

Contact: Jayne Richards
The Genetics Society
Roslin Institute
Midlothian EH25 9PS
Tel: 0131 527 4472
Fax: 0131 440 0434

Endocrinology is the study of the hormone system, from individual cells to the entire person. The endocrine system affects the whole body and is essential for life. Without hormones you could not be conceived, grow, have sex, reproduce, digest food, cope with stress or recover from injury. Your endocrine system also controls moods and emotions. It is now understood that hormones regulate the growth and functioning of every cell of the body, not just the endocrine glands. Their interactions are fascinatingly complex and new discoveries about their actions are constantly being made. When the endocrine system is disrupted for any reason, abnormal hormone production can explain the symptoms, if not the cause, of many diseases, including cancer, diabetes and infertility. Hormones also provide the means to treat these illnesses. Endocrinology is a major field of medicine and biology. Endocrinologists work at the frontier of research in the health and life sciences.

Society for Endocrinology
17/18 The Courtyard
Bradley Stoke
Bristol BS32 4NQ
Tel: 01454 619036
Fax: 01454 616071
[email protected]

Biochemistry is the branch of science that explores the structure and function of all living organisms at the molecular level. This involves investigating isolated biomolecules, microorganisms, plants, insects, animals and man. Biochemical analysis is used in clinical and forensic science and in the food and pharmacological industries. The topics of molecular biology, biotechnology and genetic engineering derive from biochemistry and the subject interacts with a wide range of other biological disciplines. As a result, biochemists play an important role in contributing to advances in a wide variety of areas, including health, agriculture and the environment. Progress in the biochemical understanding of disease has lead to medical applications, including the screening of unborn babies for disease and investigation of possible cures for illnesses such as cancer and AIDS. Environmental aspects if biochemistry include combating pollution and designing biocompatible products. The genetic engineering of plants has lead to advances in agriculture including crop improvement and resistance to pests and disease.

Biochemical Society
59 Portland Place
London W1B 1QW
Tel: 020 7580 5530
Fax: 020 7323 1136

Biophysics is an exciting interdisciplinary subject involving a dynamic interplay between biology, chemistry and physics. Areas of study range from muscle contraction and cell movements, through the utilisation of light energy in photosynthesis and the flow of ions across cell membranes which underlies nerve conduction, to the molecular interactions which are responsible for switching genes on and off. In all cases, biophysics uses techniques from the physical sciences to obtain an understanding of the atomic and molecular basis of these crucial biological processes. In particular, these methods are used to determine the three-dimensional structures of the macromolecules involved, which underlie their biological function. This structural information will be the key to exploitation of the rapidly increasing knowledge of the human genome in understanding the molecular basis of disease and in designing safe and effective new medicines.

Dr. R. Cooke
Department of Biomolecular Structure
GlaxoWellcome Research & Development
Gunnels Wood Road
Hertfordshire SG1 2NY
Email: [email protected]

Biochemical Society/Portland Press
59 Portland Place
United Kingdom

Biochemical Society Membership Office
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Tel: 020 7637 5873 - Fax: 020 7323 1136
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