Biochemistry, as its name suggests, combines biology and chemistry. It
involves studying the workings of living systems at the molecular level, where
the action is decidedly chemical.
"I think it's quite a unique field in that we're exploring how life works,
but at the atomic and molecular scale, so we're really trying to understand
that absolutely fundamental side of how life is able to be as it is," says
biochemist Jan Rainey.
Biochemists can be found in many settings. They work in research, development
and quality control laboratories. They work in the chemical, petrochemical
and pharmaceutical industries. They are also in the manufacturing, education,
government and health sectors.
"A huge emerging area for biochemists is in biofuels -- research and development,
finding ways to extract fuels, engineering enzymes to convert plant/microbe
materials to fuels, etc.," says biochemist Penny Beuning.
At universities across North America, biochemists teach and conduct research
projects. Those who work in hospital laboratories -- clinical chemists --
are an important part of the health-care team.
Biochemists who work in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, use various
techniques to measure substances in the human body in order to identify disease,
measure prognosis (outcome) and monitor treatment.
They also oversee lab procedures, evaluate diagnostic problems and advise
medical staff on the interpretation of results.
Biochemists also analyze kidney, liver and thyroid function, assist in
the diagnosis of heart attacks, check glucose levels in diabetic patients,
and monitor cholesterol levels in patients with cardiovascular disease.
Biochemists are engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.
"It's funny that 10 years ago people said, 'Well, once the human genome
is sequenced we'll have all the answers,'" says Beuning. "And really what
that gave us was a lot of questions.
"So now we really need biochemists to understand: What's the mechanism
behind how these genes work? Or what's the mechanism behind this drug? Or
how do we figure out this thing that's causing this disease? What does that
receptor do? How do we design a drug?
"And there are lots of different kinds of scientists involved in that,"
Beuning adds, "but biochemists who can really understand at the molecular
and the chemical level how things are working in a cell, there's a real need
for that kind of insight."