What Chemists and Materials Scientists Do
Most chemists and materials scientists work as part of a team.
Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and analyze the ways in which the substances interact with one another. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products and to test the quality of manufactured goods.
Chemists and materials scientists typically do the following:
- Plan and carry out complex research projects, such as the development of new products and testing methods
- Instruct scientists and technicians on proper chemical processing and testing procedures, including ingredients, mixing times, and operating temperatures
- Prepare solutions, compounds, and reagents used in laboratory procedures
- Analyze substances to determine their composition and concentration of elements
- Conduct tests on materials and other substances to ensure that safety and quality standards are met
- Write technical reports that detail methods and findings
- Present research findings to scientists, engineers, and other colleagues
Some chemists and materials scientists work in basic research. Others work in applied research. In basic research, chemists investigate the properties, composition, and structure of matter. They also experiment with combinations of elements and the ways in which they interact. In applied research, chemists investigate possible new products and ways to improve existing ones. Chemistry research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved drugs, plastics, fertilizers, flavors, batteries, and cleaners, as well as thousands of other products.
Materials scientists study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or enhance existing ones. They determine ways to strengthen or combine existing materials, or develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Applications of materials science include inventing or improving ceramics, plastics/polymers, metallic alloys, and superconducting materials.
Chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling, simulation, and experimental analysis. For example, some chemists use three-dimensional computer modeling software to study the structure and properties of complex molecules.
If a chemist specializes in green chemistry, he or she will design chemical processes and products that are environmentally sustainable. Green chemistry processes minimize the creation of toxins and waste.
Most chemists and materials scientists work as part of a team. The number of scientific research projects that involve multiple disciplines is increasing, and it is common for chemists and materials scientists to work on teams with other scientists, such as biologists, physicists, computer specialists, and engineers. For example, in pharmaceutical research, chemists may work with biologists to develop new drugs and with engineers to design ways to mass-produce the new drugs. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists, microbiologists, zoologists and wildlife biologists, physicists and astronomers, computer and information technology occupations, and engineering occupations.
Because chemists and materials scientists typically work on research teams, they need to be able to work well with others toward a common goal. Many serve in a leadership capacity and need to be able to motivate and direct other team members.
Chemists often specialize in a particular branch of the field. The following are examples of types of chemists:
Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances by examining and identifying their various elements or compounds. They also study the relationships and interactions among the parts of compounds. Some analytical chemists specialize in developing new methods of analysis and new techniques for carrying out their work. Their research has a wide range of applications, including food safety, pharmaceuticals, and pollution control.
Forensic chemists analyze evidence for clues to help solve crimes. These chemists aid in criminal investigations by testing evidence, such as DNA, and interpreting their findings. Not only is human DNA evidence tested; DNA evidence can be used to exonerate animals suspected of having killed people or other animals. These chemists work primarily in laboratories, though they sometimes testify in court.
Inorganic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that do not contain carbon, such as metals. They work to understand the behavior and the characteristics of inorganic substances. Inorganic chemists figure out how these materials, such as ceramics and superconductors, can be modified, separated, or used in products.
Medicinal chemists research and develop chemical compounds that can be used as pharmaceutical drugs. They work on teams with other scientists and engineers to create and test new drug products. They also help develop new and improved manufacturing processes to effectively produce new drugs on a large scale.
Organic chemists study the structure, properties, and reactions of molecules that contain carbon. They also design and make new organic substances that have unique properties and applications. These compounds, in turn, have been used to develop many commercial products, such as pharmaceutical drugs and plastics.
Physical chemists study the fundamental characteristics of how matter behaves on a molecular and atomic level and how chemical reactions occur. From their analyses, physical chemists may develop new theories, such as how complex structures are formed. Physical chemists often work closely with materials scientists, to research and develop potential uses for new materials.
Theoretical chemists investigate theoretical methods that can predict the outcomes of chemical experiments. Theoretical chemistry encompasses a variety of specializations, although most specializations incorporate advanced computation and programming. Some examples of theoretical chemists are computational chemists, mathematical chemists, and chemical informaticians.
Materials scientists tend to specialize by the material they work with most often. A few examples of materials in which these scientists specialize are ceramics, glasses, metals, nanomaterials (extremely small substances), polymers, and semiconductors.
A growing number of chemists work in interdisciplinary fields, such as biochemistry and geochemistry. For more information, see the profiles on biochemists and biophysicists and geoscientists.
Many people with a chemistry background become postsecondary teachers or high school teachers.