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Non-traditional sectors for chemistry research jobs

by Fiona Christie on June 24, 2011

This is a guest post from Greg Hayes who writes from the US. He has an advanced degree in organic chemistry, and currently writes his own blog on health and fitness. Thanks for submitting Greg.

In today’s business world of environmental regulation, consolidation, and drives to efficiency, competition for research-driven opportunities related to chemistry is huge. But opportunities do exist if you look beyond the most widely popularized chemistry jobs.  So check out these three alternatives to the traditional chemist’s job.

Bio-Fuels Development

Most people don’t realize that one of the early demonstrations of a diesel engine at work used peanut oil as the fuel source.  The push to reduce reliance on petroleum has opened the doors for biofuels in a big way.  Everything from switchgrass-based ethanol production to biodiesel from canola oil is on the table.  Unlike the first diesel engine, today’s finely tuned engines require precision fuels as well.  But there are a number of hurdles to their commercialization, and one of the biggest is cost.  Biofuel production is done by a batch process, which is substantially more expensive than the continuous production processes used to make most petroleum-based fuels. Another is purity.  Oils are naturally occurring products that vary from source to source.  There is ample opportunity for creative chemists to employ their skills solving these problems.

Naturally Occurring Compounds

Natural product chemists specialize in exploring the development of new medications from naturally occurring sources.  They work hand in hand with field biologists to obtain novel materials, and the skills required to be successful draw from organic, analytical, and biochemistry.  The traditional path to exploring natural products is that of pharmaceutical research chemist, but a different spin on this career path is the study of homeopathic medications.  The search for ways to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria has driven many companies to return to naturally occurring materials.  Prior to the 1950’s, most people relied on homeopathic treatments to treat everything from skin infections to spider bites.

As the pendulum swings back toward the use of these materials, there is a need for chemists to study and understand their composition, purity, and mode of action. Substances like tea tree oil, which have been used for centuries for medicinal purposes, are complex mixtures that have been used for millenia to treat disease. As science revisits these materials, understanding their composition, and even how they may interact with other drugs, is of paramount importance to potential companies looking to capitalize.

Product Formulation

The development of cosmetics, recipes, packaged foods, and coatings all draw on the expertise of chemists.  As mature fields that aren’t heavily reliant on “basic” research, these disciplines are often dominated by undergraduate-degree chemists. Rather than being relatively pure, rigidly controlled substances, these products are complex mixtures that blend expertise from a number of different disciplines. Developing products requires an understanding and appreciation of everything from materials chemistry to dispersion science.   And for those who prefer the variety of customer contact and travel to a daily laboratory grind, all these fields often allow a great deal more customer interaction than a standard lab job.  These are overlooked areas where the application of sound chemistry principles can yield dramatic opportunities for those willing to expand on their graduate chemistry degree in novel ways.

The field of chemistry presents a number of unique opportunities for those willing to expand on their degree in non-traditional ways, and these three are only the tip of the iceberg.  Obtaining an advanced degree in chemistry opens doors for the budding chemist, and the application of that advanced degree to solve problems in both emerging, and mature fields, presents a novel challenge on which the enterprising chemist can capitalize. So look beyond the traditional chemistry disciplines, to industries where an intimate knowledge of chemistry can be blended with other expertise to drive the development of new products.

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