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Many chemists work in research and development laboratories. However, some chemists spend most of their time in offices or libraries, where they do academic research on new developments or write reports on research results. Often these chemists determine the need for certain products and tell the researchers what experiments or studies to pursue in the laboratory.
Chemists who work in research are usually focused on either basic or applied research. Basic research entails searching for new knowledge about chemicals and chemical properties. This helps scientists broaden their understanding of the chemical world, and often these new discoveries appear later as applied research. Chemists who do applied research use the knowledge obtained from basic research to create new and/or better products that may be used by consumers or in manufacturing processes, such as the development of new pharmaceuticals for the treatment of a specific disease or superior plastics for space travel. In addition, they may hold marketing or sales positions, advising customers about how to use certain products. These jobs are especially important in the field of agriculture, where customers need to know the safe and effective doses of pesticides to use to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. Chemists who work in marketing and sales must understand the scientific terminology involved so they can translate it into nontechnical terms for the customer.
Some chemists work in quality control and production in manufacturing plants. They work with plant engineers to establish manufacturing processes for specific products and to ensure that the chemicals are safely and effectively handled within the plant.
Chemists also work as instructors in high schools, colleges, and universities. Many at the university level are also involved in basic or applied research. In fact, most of America's basic research is conducted in a university setting.
There are many branches of chemistry, each with a different set of requirements. A chemist may go into basic or applied research, marketing, teaching, or a variety of other related positions. Analytical chemists study the composition and nature of rocks, soils, and other substances and develop procedures for analyzing them. They also identify the presence of pollutants in soil, water, and air. Biological chemists, also known as biochemists, study the composition and actions of complex chemicals in living organisms. They identify and analyze the chemical processes related to biological functions, such as metabolism or reproduction, and they are often involved directly in genetics studies. They are also employed in the pharmaceutical and food industries.
The distinction between organic and inorganic chemistry is based on carbon-hydrogen compounds. Ninety-nine percent of all chemicals that occur naturally contain carbon. Organic chemists study the chemical compounds that contain carbon and hydrogen, while inorganic chemists study all other substances. Physical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules. A physical chemist working in a nuclear power plant, for example, may study the properties of the radioactive materials involved in the production of electricity derived from nuclear fission reactions. Medicinal chemists develop chemical compounds that can be used to make pharmaceutical drugs.
Because chemistry is such a diverse field, central to every reaction and the transformation of all matter, it is necessary for chemists to specialize in specific areas. Still, each field covers a wide range of work and presents almost limitless possibilities for experimentation and study. Often, chemists will team up with colleagues in other specialties to seek solutions to their common problems.