‘Chemistry is the study of matter.’ This is likely one of the first things that you will learn when you enter the lab to study for the first time. Everything on Earth is composed of matter in its vast number of forms. Chemists dedicate their lives to understanding the properties, composition, and structure of substances and how they interact with one another. The vast applications of this science enable us to break down materials to their purest forms, decode the structures and reactions of materials to progress scientific research, and develop efficient, chemically sound strategies. Chemistry has been at the forefront of scientific advancement, and its applications form the foundation for progression. Whether you're already immersed in the world of chemistry or considering it as your academic and professional destiny, join us as we unlock the doors to the remarkable career horizons that await those who dare to explore the depths of chemical science.
Chemistry in the Cosmos
While it may be hard to imagine being able to manage a chemistry lab at zero gravity, chemists have done incredible work in microgravity and in the pursuit of discovery that has opened doors for new avenues of research. Applying the study of chemistry off-world has created new branches of study such as astrochemistry (the study of atoms and molecules in space), atmospheric chemistry (the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere), and planetary chemistry (the study of planets and their planetary systems). Technological advancements have allowed for multiple laboratories to be implemented in orbit attached to space stations. These labs have taken research in chemistry and other STEM disciplines to new heights.
Chemistry has played a key role in the progression of space exploration and has provided solutions to problems in many notable instances. On the mission Apollo-13, a critical oxygen tank was ignited by damaged insulated wiring causing a total depletion of oxygen for life support and propulsion systems. The astronauts and mission control worked together with NASA Chemists to create a makeshift adaptor for the lithium hydroxide canisters to remove toxic CO2 build-up. With the filter engaged and the lunar landing canceled, engines on the lunar module were repurposed to set a trajectory back into Earth’s atmosphere. This problem-solving initiative guaranteed a safe return home for the crew.
Chemists also have a history of traveling into orbit themselves. John Llewellyn was the first ever chemist to be selected as a NASA astronaut. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1955 and his PhD in Chemistry in 1958. Llewellyn took up a professor’s position and researched at universities for a period before being chosen to be Astronaut Candidate as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in August 1967. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete his flight training and resigned in 1968.
Chemist Helen Sharman was the first British cosmonaut. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from University of Sheffield in 1984 and earning a PhD in Chemistry in 1987 from the University of London, she worked in research and development for General Electric and later worked as a chemist for chocolate company, Mars. She heard a public announcement of open applications for astronaut candidates, Project Juno, on her drive home from work, jumped at the opportunity, and was selected for the mission on live television in 1989. She flew on the Soyuz TM-12 mission to the Russian space station, Mir, which lasted eight days. Sharman conducted multiple tests during her time in space and also spent some time practicing photography over the British Isles.
Cady Coleman, who holds a PhD in Polymer Science, spent over 180 days in space including a six-month stay on board the International Space Station (ISS). Coleman’s first mission, STS-73, launched on space shuttle Columbia in 1995. This mission lasted over fifteen days in which extensive research was conducted in materials science, biotechnology, combustion science, and fluid physics. On STS-93, also on Columbia, she acted as Lead Mission Specialist for the deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Her longest and final mission was Soyuz TMA-20 in 2010 which lasted six months. During her extended period aboard the ISS Coleman acted as Lead Robotics and Lead Science officer.
Another Astronaut Chemist is Leland Melvin. Melvin has logged over 565 hours in space. Before becoming a full-time Chemist, he was a football player. Melvin attended the University of Richmond on a football scholarship where he achieved a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. After graduating, he was drafted in the 1986 NFL draft in the 11th round by the Detroit Lions, but suffered a hamstring injury in training camp which kept him from making his professional debut. He was released from the Lions then signed as a free agent to the Dallas Cowboys in 1987. The same year that Melvin signed on with the Cowboys he enrolled in a program to earn his master’s degree at the University of Virginia. A second hamstring injury in training camp once again kept him off the field, and he switched gears to focus on education and earn his Master of Science in Materials Science Engineering in 1989. Shortly after, Melvin began his work at NASA's Langley Research Center in the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch. He went on to use his specialization to lead teams until he was encouraged to apply to the astronaut program. He was selected as an Astronaut Candidate in 1998 and flew two missions, STS-122 and STS-129, on the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist. STS-122 launched in 2008 and focused on the delivery and installation of the European Space Agency's Columbus module for the ISS, the SOLAR observatory, and other equipment for repairs and replacements. This mission lasted over twelve days. Astronaut Melvin’s second mission, STS-129, launched to the ISS in 2009 and lasted over ten days. During the mission, the crew delivered two ExPRESS Logistics Carriers (ELC racks) and about 30,000 pounds of replacement parts for essential systems that provide power to the station to keep it from overheating and maintain proper orientation in space. On STS-129, Melvin flew with two of Higher Orbits’ partnered astronauts, Mike Foreman and Nicole Stott!
- Research Scientist
Many chemistry graduates pursue careers as research scientists in academia, government agencies, or private companies. They work on developing new methods, materials, processes, and more to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Research chemists also collaborate with multidisciplinary teams, including physicists, biologists, and engineers, to tackle complex research questions. A Bachelor of Science in Chemistry is the essential first step to work as a research scientist in Chemistry. This provides a comprehensive understanding of chemical principles, laboratory techniques, and problem-solving skills. Pursuing graduate degrees, such as a master's or a PhD, can allow chemists to conduct independent research, make significant contributions to their field, and open doors to more advanced roles in the industry. The daily tasks of a research chemist are as diverse as the field itself and usually revolve around the areas of targeted research. Advancements in this dynamic field are constantly being made, so it is essential for researchers to stay up to date with new technologies and methods.
- Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology
This field works to improve medical treatments and pharmaceuticals towards a healthier world. For a career in pharmaceutical and biotechnological Chemistry, a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry provides the fundamental knowledge and principles to enter the career. As with most fields, further education pursuit can expand the reach of career applications. With a growing emphasis on healthcare and advancements in medical science, chemistry majors are well-positioned for roles in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. For clinical research, their expertise is vital to improve human health and treatments. Chemists in this field deploy their STEM expertise to design and synthesize new compounds with therapeutic potential, conduct laboratory experiments to test the safety and efficacy of drugs, and optimize production processes to ensure cost-effectiveness and quality.
- Environmental Analyst
With climate and environmental concerns rampantly increasing, Environmental Analyst Chemists step up to research and conduct chemical solutions. Those with a passion for Chemistry and environmental health can study the impact of pollutants, devise strategies for waste management, and contribute to the development of cleaner energy sources. Their work spans various sectors, including government agencies, research institutions, environmental consulting firms, and non-profit organizations. They play a vital role in safeguarding our natural resources and ensuring a sustainable future. Environmental chemists are tasked with a wide range of responsibilities aimed at identifying and mitigating environmental issues. These findings inform decision-makers about the potential impact of pollutants on ecosystems and human health. They may also be involved in monitoring compliance with environmental regulations, helping organizations and industries reduce their environmental footprint. Environmental chemists play a critical role in assessing and managing environmental risks, contributing to the development of sustainable practices, and promoting the responsible use of natural resources to protect our planet for future generations.
- Forensic Scientist
While outside the traditional STEM industries, Forensic Chemistry is a vital branch of the criminal justice system. This field employs the techniques and principles of Chemistry to unravel the truth in areas of legal uncertainty. Using absolute scientific principles, physical evidence can be examined and processed to draw conclusions about events. The role of a Forensic Chemist involves working closely with law enforcement agencies, crime scene investigators, and legal experts to uncover this critical evidence that can be used in court. These positions require extensive education with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry or a related degree, such as Forensic Science. A master's or PhD is recommended for people interested in developing new technologies or pursuing more specialized positions. Beyond research, Forensic Chemists are often expected to play a role in court proceedings and act as witnesses or professional consultants to present their findings. This career bridges the legal and STEM industries and can prove to be a deeply satisfying path for Chemists with investigative inclinations.
- Chemical Engineering
Chemical engineers are essential in sectors like pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, materials science, energy production, and environmental management. Their expertise in designing and optimizing processes, developing new materials, and ensuring the efficient use of resources makes them valuable contributors to technological advancements and sustainable practices. A Bachelor of Chemical Engineering is required for most entry-level positions in this field. The education covers the principles of engineering, physics, mathematics, and chemistry. It is essential to be able to blend these subjects to analyze the full scope of a problem and employ all techniques to create a sustainable solution. Being technologically up-to-date in this field that can at times rely heavily on the use of computer simulations used in research and testing. Further education such as a master’s or PhD can help an applicant to earn a more specialized position.
As with any practice, training others is necessary to keep the profession thriving. Investing time back into students is a rewarding career that helps to build up others with a similar passionate mindset. It is imperative that a professor have good writing and communication skills, so it is recommended to take courses with this in mind. To teach Chemistry at a secondary school level, a combination of a valid teaching credential and a Bachelors of Chemistry is typically standard. Chemistry is a highly technical science, so an extensive education is required to be a professor at the university level. In these positions it is also typical that professors undertake research projects through the school.
A degree in chemistry opens up a world of possibilities and diverse career paths with some Chemists even making their way into space! From research scientists making groundbreaking discoveries in laboratories to environmental analysts safeguarding our planet, and pharmaceutical chemists developing life-changing medicines, chemistry majors are at the forefront of innovation and progress. Chemistry has pushed scientific research forward for centuries, and Chemists’ expertise and problem-solving skills are not only in demand but are also essential in shaping the future. Whether you're drawn to the intricate world of molecules, the potential for space exploration, or the quest to make our environment more sustainable, a chemistry major provides the knowledge and tools to make a significant impact. As we continue to face complex challenges in healthcare, the environment, and technology, the role of chemistry in addressing these issues becomes increasingly critical. So, whether you're just starting your academic journey or contemplating a career change, remember that a chemistry degree can be your gateway to a world of opportunities where scientific curiosity meets real-world impact. Embrace the universe of possibilities, and let your passion for chemistry launch you to a rewarding and meaningful career!