What IS biochemistry?

In my experience as a undergraduate student majoring in biochemistry I’ve found it a hard to conceptualize for people without a connection to the biological sciences. Upon uttering the phrase “biochemistry major” out loud the most frequent response has been a glazed-over look paired with “Ooooh wow!” promptly followed by something to the effect of, “That sounds complicated, good for you!” The implication is such that I notice many view biochemistry as an inaccessible and intimidating subject.; the hardest part of which is to understand what it is.

The closest subjects people connect it to are chemistry and microbiology/disease, and occasionally genetics. This has always made me wonder what it is about biochemistry, specifically, that has led to its low exposure in everyday conversation compared to its closely-related topics. One hears the words “chemicals”, “virus”, “inheritance”, “antimicrobial”, or “evolution” with high frequency with the concepts (to some extent) being widely understood. I myself did not no know what biochemistry was as a subject until getting to the upper level courses of the major, yet even though I have had exposure to the subject in its purest form I still find it hard to articulate what exactly it is.

I would define it as the subject that spans the chemical building blocks of life to the cellular building blocks of life. This means a biological-centered take on chemistry, such as the chemical makeup of biological molecules and how they interact between microscopic and the whole-organism levels. It means looking at what genes are, what exact role they have in a cell, and the impact of their simultaneous regulated and regulatory roles in a cellular environment are. It has also meant understanding differences between different kinds of cells, as well as the environments they create and are placed in. I’ve come to learn as a developing biochemist that even though a specific focus may be on one level of life one must constantly be thinking of implications on every other level. In other words, though a biochemist may focus on a certain protein in a cellular pathway, they must also consider its chemical properties/interactions while also noting its place in the living cell/tissue/being of study.

Now that I have done my best to explain biochemistry I must add the caveat that I am nothing more than a student of biochemistry at its lowest rung. My exposure with the subject is familiar at best, and usually overwhelmed on a daily basis. I committed to the major simply because I knew I enjoyed science courses but did not like the sound of the topics that the other majors – chemistry, biology, environmental science, physics, etc. – covered. I stayed because I realized how vast the world of biochemistry is, and its many implications. Though it is seen as a highly specific subject, the questions that biochemistry has the potential to answer are abundant which has kept me going to see the major through.

As of now, I have no specific career goals but I have confidence that my background in biochemistry will serve me well no matter what career path I take. This is because I have learned to appreciate how one can engage biochemistry with any other topic of interest. A background in biochemistry means an understanding of fundamental biology and chemistry as the name describes. Yet beyond just pure biology and chemistry, biochemistry is a hybrid concept that allows one to understand matters on a microscopic level while continuously placing knowledge in context.

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