Biochemistry is, at its core, an upper-level, interdisciplinary field within the natural sciences. To study it is to devote long-term time and energy to increase one’s knowledge about biochemistry, acquire a skill set relevant to biochemical lab work, and cultivate thought processes necessary to understand the interconnection and patterns of metabolism.
As scientists, we hold ourselves to a high standard of ethics. This is imperative to every aspect of what we do. Scientists must make sure their work is ethical from a moral perspective (i.e. not inflict unnecessary pain on subjects) and from an environmental perspective (i.e. properly disposing of chemicals). Additionally, the standard of scientific discovery must be high, meaning no false positives should be able to escape scrutiny and make it to publication. If these ethical criteria are not met, the public loses trust in science as a whole and research grants are threatened, which is bad for everyone involved. For an example of what happens when the ethics of science are breached, ask yourself this: Have you ever heard someone mention “vaccines cause autism”? (they don’t, for the record).
The biochemical field can be described in two ways, each of which reflects a researcher’s approach to their work and its perceived purpose. The first is the chemical perspective, which sees biochemistry as an outgrowth of organic chemistry and other fields dealing with the chemical properties of organic molecules. In this view, biochemistry is life’s way of doing SN1, E2, electrophilic addition, etc. from organic chemistry. The scale of the processes and the physical size of the molecules are larger, but the basic rules are no different. The second perspective is biological. Biochemistry is the smallest scale of biological study, that of molecules and macromolecules. Biology looks at every structure through an evolutionary lens. Every similarity is because of shared evolutionary history or similar selective pressures, and all metabolic processes are connected to feedback loops keeping the organism alive and ready for reproduction. Biochemistry is interdisciplinary because both perspectives complement each other and are not mutually exclusive.
Biochemistry is closely related to other, more specific fields located between pure biology and pure chemistry. Pharmaceuticals, as we all know, are about developing drugs to assist or counteract the human body and cure ailments. This is more closely related to the organic chemistry perspective, but approaching from a cellular angle or looking at patterns from previously effective drugs also can help. Biotechnology is a growing field which uses techniques from biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and others to produce novel biological solutions to human issues, such as increasing crop yield and cleaning up oil spills. Genetic testing, while not strictly biochemistry, uses a lot of techniques from biochemistry and is assisted by biochemists during the research phase. Genetics companies like 23 and Me are becoming more prevalent and mainstream in the twenty-first century, and they are changing the way we look at genetic predisposition and heritability in general.
In my opinion (an opinion which is quite common for Biochemistry majors), proteins are the most important part of biochemistry, specifically enzymes which do the actual biological chemistry. They are the chemical embodiment of “structure determines function.” I study Biochemistry so I can learn more about what makes each individual protein good at its job and how evolution and organic chemistry tie into that.
When I first came to Muhlenberg, I had my heart set on a science major that would reflect my interest in Biology and Chemistry. Through the introductory courses, I analyzed my grades and my personal confidence in the two fields. I tried to see which would be a better focus for my career interests, but ultimately came to the conclusion that I do better bridging the gap. With the right people pushing me at the right times along the way, that’s more or less how I got here.
As of this moment, I don’t know exactly what my career will be post-grad school. Obviously it will be something biochemical, most likely related to humans because that’s where most of the research is. I could see myself working for the pharmaceutical industry, using my knowledge of biochemical pathways to help design drugs that can circumvent most, but not all of the body’s defenses. I could also see myself working in the lab of some new biotechnology company, maybe one that doesn’t exist yet, making use of CRISPR or the next big genome/proteome breakthrough once it’s accessible to the masses. One thing is for sure: this CUE will help me prepare for and decide between these two paths.