Biochemists study the chemical makeup of living things, researching everything from food to genetics to death and driving advances in medicine, nutrition and even criminal investigation. Unlike in many areas of science, where women are relative latecomers, women have a history with biochemistry that dates back more than a century -- early knowledge of vitamins and toxins come straight from the bench of female biochemists.
At the most basic level, research biochemists study new ideas and substances without any specific goal, other than to learn "what if?" They may study genetic mutations, the evolution of species or how new substances affect cells. Basic research teams typically submit grant proposals to colleges, private foundations or the federal government to fund their experiments. Promising discoveries at the basic level lead to applied research, which seeks to solve a particular issue, such as a disease, alternative fuels or ways to protect the environment.
Forensic biochemists, sometimes called forensic toxicologists, investigate sudden and suspicious deaths. These scientists look for the presence of toxins in the system and whether a disease or outbreak was responsible for one or more deaths. They study changes in the chemical makeup of a body that typically are not discernible by other methods of postmortem research. Their work also leads to new ways to protect people from outbreaks of disease or chemical or biological weapons.
Nutritional biochemists study how nutrition and diet can influence health. Their research focuses on metabolism, physiology, genetics, epidemiology and biostatistics, and looks to understand how food and nutritional elements such as vitamins and minerals affect people and animals at a molecular level. Nutritional biologists also study how diet and nutrition can influence or help treat illnesses and diseases, and how diet can affect athletic performance, development and even mental acuity. NASA, in particular, prizes nutritional biochemists, who study ways to keep astronauts healthy and well-nourished during space flight.
Working as a biochemist usually requires a Ph.D., though those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, physics or engineering can get some entry-level positions. Most biochemists begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions before developing a specialty. The U.S. Navy, for example, requires an advanced degree, two years' experience in the field and a completed research thesis in chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology or molecular biology, and the U.S. Army has similar prerequisites.