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Chemists and Materials Scientists - What They Do


Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Chemists and materials scientists search for new knowledge about chemicals and use it to improve life. Chemical research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. Chemists and materials scientists also develop processes such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing that save energy and reduce pollution. Applications of materials science include studies of superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.

Many chemists and materials scientists work in research and development (R&D). In basic research, they investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances to each other. In applied R&D, these scientists create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, the development of synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones, a process called polymerization. R&D chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling, simulation, and experimental analysis.

Developments in technology and the use of computers have allowed chemists and materials scientists to practice new, more efficient techniques, such as combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously to find those with certain desired properties. Combinatorial chemistry allows chemists to produce thousands of compounds more quickly and less expensively than was formerly possible. In some cases, chemists use virtual libraries of millions of chemicals to find compounds with certain characteristics, allowing them to synthesize only the most promising candidates.

Scientific R&D in general has become more interdisciplinary in recent years; as a result, many chemists no longer work individually. Instead they will often be part of research teams that include other scientists, such as biologists and physicists; computer specialists; and engineers.

Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers that specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield and test samples of raw materials or finished products to ensure that these samples meet industry and government standards, including regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of improving existing theories or developing new test methods.

Chemists often specialize in a particular branch of the field. Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances by examining and identifying their various elements or compounds. These chemists are crucial to the pharmaceutical industry because pharmaceutical companies need to know the identity of compounds that they hope to turn into drugs. Furthermore, analytical chemists develop techniques and study the relationships and interactions among the parts of compounds. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in water, soil, and the air.

Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds that make up all living things. They synthesize elements or simple compounds to create new compounds or substances that have different properties and applications. These compounds have in turn been used to develop many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and elastomers (elastic substances similar to rubber). Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components.

Physical and theoretical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and the theoretical properties of matter; and they investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources. Macromolecular chemists study the behavior of atoms and molecules. Medicinal chemists study the structural properties of compounds intended for applications to human medicine.

Materials chemists study and develop new materials to improve existing products or make new ones. In fact, virtually all chemists are involved in this quest in one way or another.

The work of materials chemists is similar to, but separate from, the work of materials scientists. Materials scientists tend to have a more interdisciplinary background, as they apply the principles of physics and engineering as well as chemistry to study all aspects of materials. Chemistry, however, plays the primary role in materials science because it provides information about the structure and composition of materials.

Materials scientists study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or enhance existing ones. They also determine ways to strengthen or combine materials or develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Materials science encompasses the natural and synthetic materials used in a wide range of products and structures, from airplanes, cars, and bridges to clothing and household goods. Materials scientists often specialize in a specific type of material, such as ceramics or metals.

Work Environment
Chemists and materials scientists usually work regular hours in offices and laboratories. R&D chemists and materials scientists spend much time in laboratories but also work in offices when they do theoretical research or plan, record, and report on their lab research. Although some laboratories are small, others are large enough to incorporate prototype chemical manufacturing facilities and advanced testing equipment. In addition to working in a laboratory, materials scientists also work with engineers and processing specialists in industrial manufacturing facilities. Chemists do some of their work in a chemical plant or outdoors—gathering water samples to test for pollutants, for example. Some chemists are exposed to health or safety hazards when handling certain chemicals, but there is little risk if proper procedures are followed.

Chemists and materials scientists typically work regular hours. A 40-hour workweek is usual, but longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations, depending on the nature of their research.

Education & Training Required
A bachelor's degree in chemistry, or in a related discipline together with a significant background in chemistry, usually is required for entry-level chemist jobs. Although some materials scientists hold a degree in materials science, these scientists also commonly have a degree in chemistry, physics, or electrical engineering. Most research jobs in chemistry and materials science require a master's degree or, more frequently, a Ph.D.

Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in chemistry. In 2009, the American Chemical Society (ACS) had approved about 650 bachelors, 310 masters, and 200 doctoral degree programs. In addition to these programs, other advanced degree programs in chemistry were offered at several hundred colleges and universities. The number of colleges that offer a degree program in materials science is small but gradually increasing; many engineering schools offer degrees in the joint field of materials science and engineering.

Students planning careers as chemists or materials scientists should take courses in science and mathematics, should like working with their hands to build scientific apparatus and perform laboratory experiments, and should like computer modeling.

In addition to taking required courses in analytical, inorganic, organic, and physical chemistry, undergraduate chemistry majors usually study biological sciences; mathematics; physics; and, increasingly, computer science. Computer courses are essential because employers prefer to hire job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and are able to operate computerized laboratory equipment. These abilities are increasingly important as combinatorial chemistry and advanced screening techniques are more widely applied. Courses in statistics are useful because both chemists and materials scientists need the ability to apply basic statistical techniques.

People interested in environmental specialties also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with current legislation and regulations. Specific courses should include atmospheric, water, and soil chemistry and energy.

Graduate students studying chemistry commonly specialize in a subfield, such as analytical chemistry or polymer chemistry, depending on their interests and the kind of work they wish to do. For example, those interested in doing drug research in the pharmaceutical industry usually develop a strong background in medicinal or synthetic organic chemistry. However, students normally need not specialize at the undergraduate level. In fact, undergraduates who are broadly trained have more flexibility when searching for jobs than if they have narrowly defined their interests. Most employers provide new graduates with additional training or education.

In government or industry, beginning chemists with a bachelor's degree work in quality control, perform analytical testing, or assist senior chemists in R&D laboratories. Many employers prefer to hire chemists and materials scientists with a Ph.D., or at least a master's degree, to lead basic and applied research. Within materials science, a broad background in various sciences is preferred. This broad base may be obtained through degrees in physics, engineering, or chemistry. Although many companies prefer hiring Ph.D.s, some may employ materials scientists with a bachelor's or master's degree.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
Because R&D chemists and materials scientists are increasingly expected to work on interdisciplinary teams, some understanding of other disciplines, including business and marketing or economics, is desirable, along with leadership ability and good oral and written communication skills. Interaction among specialists in this field is increasing, especially for specialty chemists in drug development. One type of chemist often relies on the findings of another type of chemist. For example, an organic chemist must understand findings on the identity of compounds prepared by an analytical chemist.

Experience, either in academic laboratories or through internships, fellowships, or work-study programs in industry, also is useful. Some employers of research chemists, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, prefer to hire individuals with several years of postdoctoral experience.

Perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to concentrate on detail and to work independently are essential.

Chemists and Materials Scientists - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Materials Science
Materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving the properties of matter and its applications to various areas of science and engineering. This science investigates the relationship between the structure of materials and their properties. It includes elements of applied physics and chemistry, ...more