A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about how the general public sees chemists. We came up with the conclusion that most people generally default to three main assumptions:
- Chemist = Pharmacist
- Chemist = Drug Dealer (Thanks, Breaking Bad…)
- Chemist = Someone in a lab coat and goggles manically laughing as colorful, toxic liquids boil in front of them (AKA: Mad Scientist)
Though the last assumption brings a smile to my face and granted, a good number of chemists become pharmacists, these assumptions only cover a minute fraction of what a chemist actually is. In fact, the field of chemistry is actually very diverse, and the scientists trained in understanding the basic concepts have a surplus of different career opportunities spread across most STEM disciplines.
Unfortunately, despite how amazing I find the field of chemistry to be, I find that many people stray away from it due to either a bad learning experience in middle or high school or just a simple misunderstanding on exactly the kinds of things chemists can do. Therefore, in hopes to spread a little knowledge and promote my favorite subject, below you can find descriptions of the five major branches of chemistry along with other fields of study that we chemists are commonly found in. I openly admit that this is by no means a complete list and that the list provided is only a quick summary on what these kinds of chemists actually do. Their job descriptions even within each category are very diverse and I could probably do whole blog posts about each type of chemistry. Therefore, if you would like to learn more about the awesomeness that is the different fields of chemistry, I’ve also listed some resources at the very end that will provide more additional information.
Note: This post was inspired by the Tumblr post: What Do Different Geologists Do?
Feel free to use the links below to skip around this post:
The Five Branches of Chemistry
When people think of chemists, this is usually the default picture that comes to mind: a scientist with a lab coat standing before a fume hood with lots of shiny glassware filled with miscellaneous liquids. However, organic chemists do more than simply mix bottles of reagents together. These chemists are responsible for the study the structures, properties, reactions and synthesis of carbon-containing compounds.
Confused as to why that’s cool? Well, let’s put it this way. Organic compounds are all around us. They make up everything from that plastic container that carries your lunch to the cough medicine you take when you catch a cold. Even as you sit and read this post, reactions between organic molecules in your body are taking place and allowing important biochemical pathways to work properly and keep you alive. Therefore, it’s the job of the organic chemists to better understand the properties of known compounds and then utilize that in order to create new molecules that can be utilized in the treatment of disease, creation of new materials or modification of natural processes in order to make new and improved technologies.
Whereas organic chemistry focuses primarily on carbon and a handful of other elements, inorganic chemistry is much broader in scope and is interested in exploring the behaviors of the rest of the periodic table. Inorganic chemistry itself is an incredibly diverse subdiscipline, and ranges from the molecular (coordination and organometallic chemistry) to the nano-sized (quantum dots and nanostructures) to the macroscopic (materials and solid-state chemistry). All of these different sub-subfields tackle distinct problems, but approach it from a similar chemical perspective.
What does this mean practically? From the molecular perspective, important problems include understanding the steps through which chemical reactions proceed and developing new ways to synthesize molecules to learn about their properties and reactivity. Chemists whom explore the nano-sized world seek to use quantum mechanics to their advantage, in order to access strange and otherwise inaccessible physical properties. Lastly, on the other end of the size spectrum, macroscopic inorganic chemistry is often the realm of developing new materials that are, for example, physically strong, highly conductive, or strongly magnetic.
(A big thank you to the best inorganic chemist I know for helping me write this section. :D)
Ever wonder about all those fancy machines that chemists use in the lab? Or wonder how a chemist can identify the structure of a compound or figure out which molecules are in solution? Well, you can thank your analytical chemists for that one! Analytical chemistry is responsible for understanding how to measure, obtain and interpret information about physical and chemical properties of different substances. In other words, if given an unknown sample, an analytical chemist would need to figure out a way to identify what it is, how much is there and what are some unique characteristics to study and use.
Still not impressed? Through a diverse and well-rounded knowledge in chemistry, analytical chemists are found in many different types of careers. Though development and use of analytical instrumentation, this group of chemists can design experiments that are used to guarantee the safety of food, determine compliance with environmental regulations, aid in the work of forensic chemistry and find new techniques to provide answers to our ever growing scientific questions.
While some chemists thing in terms of big molecules, polymers and larger scale reactions, physical chemists prefer to think on a much smaller scale. These kinds of chemists are more interested on how materials behave on molecular or atomic scales, as well as how reactions occur at the most fundamental level and which properties are responsible for these behaviors. Through this knowledge, physical chemists can develop theories that explain certain chemical observations, understand rates and mechanisms for reactions and even discover new ways to exploit certain chemical characteristics in order to make new materials or develop new technologies.
Traditionally, physical and analytical chemistry are closely linked, and are typically categorized under the same label at universities. However, though they overlap, physical chemistry is definitely a field that is quickly growing and expanding. Through application of math and physics, those who master physical chemistry can be employed by a number of new and emerging fields such as materials science, environmental protection, military technology and government research and help provide a greater understanding of the textbook chemistry we know today.
Similar to organic chemists, biological and biochemists study organic compounds. However, biological and biochemists solely focus on the study of compounds and reactions that occur in living systems. Therefore, it is apparent that this field has a lot of ties and applications with the medical and veterinary fields, particularly with the development of medication and the understanding of biological reaction pathways. However, biological and biochemistry also play a role in the food industry (identification and extraction nutrients), agriculture (interaction of insecticides with both pests and plants) and toxicology (effect of environmental pollution on organisms), among many others.
Other Fields of Study
Environmental chemists are responsible for studying how chemicals enter the environment and how they get transported throughout the different habitats and what effect they have to both human and ecosystem health. Because the environment is an extremely complex, open system, environmental chemists must rely on knowledge from a surplus of different fields such as biology, geology, physics, toxicology and hydrology, just to name a few. As such, the field of environmental chemistry allows you to meet many different scientists with diverse backgrounds who all work together for one single goal: monitoring, preventing and understanding the effects of pollution on our planet.
Similar to environmental chemists, geochemists also study the Earth. However, their main focus is the composition of trace elements in rocks and minerals as well as how these compounds move into the soil and nearby water systems. Using this knowledge, geochemists can aid in theories about how the Earth is changing over time, how companies should dispose of toxic waste, advise mining companies how to reduce their environmental impact and inform the fossil fuel industry on which locations provide the most oil for the least amount of pollution.
Astrochemistry combines the disciplines of chemistry, physics, astronomy and computational science in order to interpret or explain astronomical observations, test theories about the formation of small molecules or provide information for models that aid in the understanding of the universe. Most commonly, astrochemists look at spectroscopic data to determine the chemical composition and reactions occurring in stars, planets and other interstellar media. By doing so, they might be able to come to conclusions on which molecules are responsible for the formation of life, or even how planets and other formations in space may have formed.
Computational chemists use sophisticated computer programs and models to help us understand the fundamental properties of atoms, molecules and reactions. Through the use of physical chemistry concepts in conjunction with knowledge of math, statistics and computer science, a computational chemist can take our current theories of chemistry and model them along side experimental observation in order to identify gaps in our knowledge and new questions to explore.
Instead of looking at reactions in the traditional sense, nuclear chemists study the interaction of elements through fission or fusion of an element’s nucleus and how these processes give off ionizing radiation which may effect organisms and the natural environment. Though typically employed by nuclear power plants, nuclear chemists can also be found in research institutions performing small scale experiments or theoretical models that help explore the effects of radiation, develop medical imaging equipment, create detection methods for radiation or explain phenomena unique to nuclear processes.
Chemical engineers are known for taking the chemical research developed in the lab and transforming it into a practical, commercial product that can be used in industry. Using their knowledge of physics, math and chemistry, chemical engineers have been responsible for helping develop industrial processes to produce chemicals, fuels, pharmaceuticals, fuels and even processes that can help clean toxic environmental waste.