Answers to these questions are given in some detail.
chemistry as a study topic; chemistry as a research topic; chemistry
as a profession.
in high schools, when confronted with the dilemma what to study
in their last two to three years, seem to lack some of the basic
information, in particular when dealing with chemistry. Moreover,
when they consider further studies at university, they do not
understand the differences between related subjects, nor do they
know what advantages they might gain when starting one subject
and then switching to another, even to a remote one. They also
lack information regarding future employment possibilities and
For many years I have met with students in high schools in Israel,
and explained why it is important to study chemistry, both at
high school, and, more importantly, at university. In the following
article I summarize information from three sources: a) my answers
to commonly asked student questions (1); b)
updates from chemistry teachers in Israel (2).
c) An excellent book (3) on the future challenges
of chemistry, which I highly recommend for both teachers and students.
As I see the advantages and fruits of this article in high schools
I have come to realize that chemistry teachers in other countries
can utilize this article (or parts of it) for a discussion in
the classroom and as an introduction to presenting chemistry as
Question: What are the subjects studied at
university that are related to chemistry?
Answer: As we all know, our lives are a combination of chemical
and physical processes, which the language of mathematics formulates
into precise and accurate expressions. An educated person in any
society should know three languages: his/her mother tongue, English
as the international language (both for everyday life and as the
scientific language) and mathematics.
As a "rule", chemistry is the science of materials,
their formation, behavior, properties and application. Therefore,
any subject that deals with materials, is based on or related
to chemistry. Thus, in the natural sciences, the major topics
of biology, ecology, agriculture, geology and earth sciences,
and related subtopics are chemistry-based subjects. For example
the life processes in our bodies, starting with the process of
respiration, through eating and digesting, enzymatic processes,
smelling and tasting, nerve transmission, hormone control of all
body functions, all involve chemical messengers, even mood and
In the health sciences – medicine and pharmacological studies
are based on chemical processes and interactions between the internal
organs and "foreign invaders" or internal disorders
(genetic diseases are also chemistry related).
In the engineering fields, first and foremost in chemical engineering.
Other subjects are material sciences, nanotechnology, food and
biotechnology, textiles, environmental engineering, nuclear engineering
and electronics, including computers.
Even a remote subject such as archeology includes some chemistry:
archeometry studies (among other things) the dating of organic
remains by the 14C isotope decomposition, as well as the composition
of dyes, metals, cleaning of coins, the preservation of paper
and leather items, etc. Forensic studies include the most modern,
sophisticated and sensitive instrumentation and techniques used
in chemical laboratories in universities and in the chemical industry.
Q. What are the main topics in chemistry taught
A. The classical division of chemistry into 4-5 basic branches
still exists in the curriculum. Chemistry majors, as well as students
in the above-related subjects, study general and analytical chemistry,
then physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry
and biochemistry. These subjects are taught at different levels
and combinations according to the needs of the "customer"
students. Thus, medical students are given more background in
the bioorganic aspects of chemistry, while environmental engineering
students are taught more analytical and physical chemistry.
Q. What are the major research fields in chemistry?
A. Chemistry, as mentioned above, is the science of materials.
The chemists are the only ones trained to break and form chemical
bonds. The chemists are the only people who can create new chemicals,
new materials from different starting materials, and thus create
new materials with new properties – this is the most important
aspect of chemistry. Therefore, the research fields do not necessarily
fall within the classically defined chemical topics, as they are
taught in university classes.
Chemistry, beside the basic studies in the area, has become a
bridge between life sciences and technology. One can find many
chemists collaborating with
biologists, physicians, or pharmacologists, and at the same time
it is common to see chemists join research groups dealing with
composite materials, electrical devices and computer components.
Many new fields of research are combinations and overlapping of
closely or distantly related fields, such as bioinorganic studies,
surface chemistry, or photoelectrochemistry.
Organometallic chemistry and coordinate chemistry are a combination
of organic and inorganic chemistry.
Catalysis is a hot field, both heterogenous and homogenous, mainly
for industrial processes and production, as well as the specialty
of biocatalysis, which is based on enzymes.
Polymers are a very active field, and makes up about 50% of the
chemical industrial production and marketing. Polymers are divided
into the groups: plastics, adhesives, sieves, elastics and coatings.
They constitute almost every aspect of our lives.
Composite materials and organic metals are also studied, mainly
for technological applications.
In analytical chemistry methods and instruments for detecting
quantities smaller than10-12 g and times of less than 10-15 seconds
are accessible (Femtochemistry).
Computational chemistry has proved itself, time and again, as
a tool for predicting properties on one hand, and theoretical
"approval" of experimental results on the other.
Genetic engineering is based on chemical entities, and biochemical
studies of cancer require chemical knowledge.
An emerging field is nanochemistry, where atom or molecule sized
devices (nanomaterials) are being sought for computers and other
sophisticated applications. Another fast developing field is combinatorial
chemistry, in which parallel screening of hundreds or thousands
of samples are checked for different properties, either in pharmaceutical
studies, for sensors or in genomic studies.
Chemoinformatics (the parallel of bioinformatics) is at the beginning
of its establishment.
The chemistry of computers, namely, chips, is not emphasized enough.
In fact, there would be no computing capabilities without the
chemicals and the chemical processes involved.
The list is much longer, and the above-mentioned examples merely
illustrate the wide range of research activities. The "classical"
fields of organic synthesis, spectroscopy or electrochemistry,
and many others, are still areas of active research.
Q. What are the differences between
chemistry and closely related subjects, such as chemical engineering,
material engineering, pharmacological studies, medicine and biomedical
A. I do not think that I have to explain here what is a chemist
and what chemistry is about, rather I will concentrate on the
other subjects. The most related subject to chemistry, and which
causes a great deal of confusion among teachers and students is
chemical engineering. To be accurate in my response I approached
colleagues from our chemical engineering department and asked
them to define, as they see it, the difference between a chemist
and a chemical engineer. The responses were unanimous in the basic
idea, that, a chemical engineer is, first of all, an engineer.
In that, he/she is more of a mechanical engineer who works with
chemicals. chemical engineering is the engineering part of the
production processes in which chemical and physical changes take
place. The chemical engineer deals with all aspects of the chemical
industry from planning, designing, construction, operation, and
control, as well as research and development, marketing and technical
services for customers. Of course the chemical engineer should
also be aware of the economic aspects of production.
Material engineering is a combination of engineering and physics,
with the chemical aspects of properties and the behavior of materials
under different conditions. It is important for the material engineer
to understand the relationships between chemical composition and
the mechanical-physical properties of a substance.
Pharmaceutics is the study of drugs, their preparation, understanding
their mode of action, their stability in the laboratory and in
the body, how they reach their target, and correct combination
- in the case of using multiple drugs at one time. Since all drugs
are chemicals, either natural or synthetic, pharmacists should
have at least a basic knowledge of chemistry.
Medicine deals with the health of our bodies and souls. Health
is based on proper and adequate chemical and physical processes
in the body. Any change might cause a disease or chronic illness.
Some of these diseases are the results of genetic "mistakes",
namely, mutations in the genetic code, which are the result of
changes in the heterocyclic units (nitrogen bases) in DNA and
therefore "mistaken’ amino acids are introduced in
the proteins produced. It is enough to mention the activity of
enzymes, vitamins, hormones, and other chemical messengers, which
are all active chemicals. This is the chemistry of the living
organism. The problem with chemical studies in medical school
is that medicine calls for memorizing huge amounts of information
(even though the use of computers makes it is easier for physicians),
so chemistry tends to be forgotten or neglected. The physician
does not see the immediate and direct connection between chemistry
in the body and health. In everyday life, the diagnosis of a disease
is the most important act of the physician. Therefore, chemistry
is thought of as an unimportant subject by many physicians.
Biomedical engineering has two aspects: i) the medical-biological
– the study of mode of action of different organs in the
body and developing physical-mathematical models to explain their
action; ii) the engineering – the construction of artificial
organs or devices to assist the handicapped. The chemistry needed
is that of an
engineer or a medical student, depending on the direction of expertise
Q. What is the role of chemistry in
A. As illustrated above, the level and the time allocated to chemical
studies differ according to the needs and expectations of the
"customer". In fact this is the "struggle"
between the available and the essential. In principle, the more
chemistry given and absorbed the better the understanding and
utilization. In general, the basic chapters and courses in general
chemistry (atomic structure, the periodic table, chemical bonds,
acids and bases and other fundamental concepts in chemistry),
physical chemistry and organic chemistry are given, and the time
allocated is 5-10% of the total hours of the discipline. These
courses are usually offered during the first and second years
Q. What types of occupations are there
for chemists after university, and what level of study is recommended
for better employment?
A. This is a composite question and it is better to divide it
into two parts: The level (B.Sc., M.Sc. or Ph.D), and the area.
In general, the higher the degree, the more interesting and challenging
the occupation. However, sometimes there may be a problem of being
"over-qualified", namely, the task at work does not
demand the high qualification acquired. As a thumb of rule, a
B.Sc. is suitable for a technician, who runs simple operations
or routine measurements on instruments, mainly at the analytical
laboratory, or quality control. A M.Sc. with some research experience
has a better preparation for research and development laboratories
and other functions. This is also a better degree for high school
teachers, as the curriculum nowadays requires more of a "research"
approach in high schools, even at the elementary level. A Ph.D.
is the highest degree and it opens the way to research and development
laboratories, heading research groups, developing new processes,
products and applications, and other high level leading jobs.
But one should not forget: personal abilities and potential, creativity
and fresh ideas are the most important and crucial feature for
advancing up the ladder of rank and responsibility. To summarize,
the qualities that are expected from a chemistry graduate, at
all levels, are creativity (if possible originality), ability
to work in a team and in collaboration, flexibility and adaptability,
to be open minded, to exchange ideas, and to be able to express
him/herself both in oral and written presentations in clear and
Now, as for the type of occupation: it spreads over a wide range
of activities. It is well known that at least half of the chemists
do not work in the laboratory, or do not handle chemicals. I shall
deal with this group later.
The "natural" places for chemists are both in academia
as faculty members, and in the chemical industry. In the latter
case they work in research-and-development laboratories at all
levels of expertise. They populate the analytical and quality
control facilities, in pilot plants and even on the production
line, in particular in trouble shooting units. Safety and environmental
units are obvious sites for chemists. All these are typical chemical
occupations. A short list of chemical and related industries will
illustrate the wide range of optional occupation: Basic chemicals
(both organic and inorganic), polymers, fine chemicals, pharmaceuticals,
paints, modern textiles, fertilizers, pesticides, biotechnology,
ceramics, composite materials, and others.
Other fields are environmental and ecological issues, now of great
concern, and chemists are the obvious people to enter this arena.
Personal care products as well as detergents find a very important
role in our every day lives, and chemists are the best scientists
to be involved in such fields. The food industry (flavors and
fragrances, food dyes, antioxidants) gets more attention because
of health problems associated with diet, and chemists are the
experts, who understand and can bring new ideas to the field.
Forensic chemistry is very active and has a great effect in the
fight against crime at all levels.
It is important and interesting to note the shifts in the occupational
trends of chemists in the developed chemical industry. Recently
the trend has been for more and more chemists to move to the "Bio"
related industries. The percentage of chemists (among the American
Chemical Society members) at the basic chemistry lines, such as
petrochemicals, polymers and minerals has dropped from 72% in
1980 to less than 50% in 1995; while in medical, biochemical and
biotechnological oriented industries the percentage has risen
from 16% in 1980 to 30% in 1995.
As mentioned above, many of the chemists, not in the academia,
are away from the laboratories. They are found in all sectors
where chemical education and knowledge is important. The first
and most important sector is high school teaching. There is no
need to discuss this issue in this journal. Chemists find interesting
jobs in patent offices, protecting industrial knowledge, intellectual
property and the rights of inventors; as well as in data collection
and chemical information services. One can find chemists in management,
in marketing, sales and purchasing. They are better prepared for
their jobs by acquiring an additional or advanced degree in economics
or related subjects. It is interesting to note that scientists
in general, and chemists, in particular, are active in scientific
writing, in daily newspapers and popular magazines. These are
the experts who can "translate" the scientific news
and information into the everyday language, so that people with
high school level science can understand and follow. Others are
found in scientific editing, translations, and public relationships.
In many of these types of occupation a further education is crucial.
Therefore, the first or second degree in chemistry, followed by
the second or third degree in another subject (law, economics,
engineering, business administration, library and archive management,
journalism, and many others) is the best way to get an interesting
and challenging job, which may give the most satisfaction. It
is most important to find an occupation that suits you best, as
a person is miserable if he/she begins his/her day looking forward
to the end of it…
1. Shani, A. Ha’kesher Ha’chimi
(The Chemical Bond), 1984, Issue 25, 21-24 (In Hebrew).
2. Landa, Z.; Plavner, Y.; Bard,
R.; Greenstein, F. Kesher La’Ta’asia Hachimit (Bond
to the Chemical Industry), 1998, Issue 4, 13-17 (In Hebrew).
3. Breslow, R. Chemistry Today
and Tomorrow, ACS, Washington, DC, 1997.
Some leading references:
Employment outlook 2001, C&EN, Nov. 13, 2000, pp 37-70.
Employment outlook 2000, C&EN, Nov. 15, 1999, pp 37-74.
Employment outlook 1999, C&EN, Nov. 2, 1998, pp 29-59.
Nanotechnology, A Special Report, C&EN, Oct. 16, 2000,
Proteomics, C&EN, July 31, 2000, pp 31-37.
Chemistry in the service of humanity, Millennium Special Report,
C&EN, Dec. 6, 1999, pp43-134.
Combinatorial Chemistry, A Special Report, C&EN, May
15, 2000, pp 53-68.
Michael McCoy, Completing the Circuit, C&EN, Nov. 29,
2000, pp 17-24.
David Bradley, What memories are made of, Chem. in Brit.,
March 2001, pp 28-33.
Karen J. Watkins, Cheminformatics, C&EN, Feb. 19, 2001,