Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Chemists and Materials Scientists

Everything in the environment, whether naturally occurring or of human design, is composed of chemicals. Chemists and materials scientists search for and use new knowledge about chemicals. Chemical research has led to the discovery and development of new and improved synthetic fibers, paints, adhesives, drugs, cosmetics, electronic components, lubricants, and thousands of other products. Chemists and materials scientists also develop processes that save energy and reduce pollution, such as improved oil refining and petrochemical processing methods. Research on the chemistry of living things spurs advances in medicine, agriculture, food processing, and other fields.

Materials scientists research and study the structures and chemical properties of various materials to develop new products or enhance existing ones. They also determine ways to strengthen or combine materials or develop new materials for use in a variety of products. Materials science encompasses the natural and synthetic materials used in a wide range of products and structures, from airplanes, cars, and bridges to clothing and household goods. Companies whose products are made of metals, ceramics, and rubber employ most materials scientists. Other applications of materials science include studies of superconducting materials, graphite materials, integrated-circuit chips, and fuel cells. Materials scientists, applying chemistry and physics, study all aspects of these materials. Chemistry plays an increasingly dominant role in materials science, because it provides information about the structure and composition of materials. Materials scientists often specialize in specific areas such as ceramics or metals.

Many chemists and materials scientists work in research and development (R&D). In basic research, they investigate properties, composition, and structure of matter and the laws that govern the combination of elements and reactions of substances. In applied R&D, they create new products and processes or improve existing ones, often using knowledge gained from basic research. For example, synthetic rubber and plastics resulted from research on small molecules uniting to form large ones, a process called polymerization. R&D chemists and materials scientists use computers and a wide variety of sophisticated laboratory instrumentation for modeling and simulation in their work.

The use of computers to analyze complex data has had the dramatic impact of allowing chemists and materials scientists to practice combinatorial chemistry. This technique makes and tests large quantities of chemical compounds simultaneously in order to find compounds with certain desired properties. As an integral part of drug and materials discovery, combinatorial chemistry speeds up materials design and R&D, permitting useful compounds to be developed more quickly and inexpensively than was formerly possible. Combinatorial chemistry has allowed chemists to produce thousands of compounds each year and to assist in the completion of the sequencing of human genes. Today, chemists are working with life scientists to translate this knowledge into viable new drugs.

Chemists also work in production and quality control in chemical manufacturing plants. They prepare instructions for plant workers that specify ingredients, mixing times, and temperatures for each stage in the process. They also monitor automated processes to ensure proper product yield, and test samples of raw materials or finished products to make certain that they meet industry and government standards, including the regulations governing pollution. Chemists report and document test results and analyze those results in hopes of further improving existing theories or developing new test methods.

Chemists often specialize. Analytical chemists determine the structure, composition, and nature of substances by examining and identifying the various elements or compounds that make up a substance. These chemists are absolutely crucial to the pharmaceutical industry because pharmaceutical companies need to know the identity of compounds that they hope to turn into drugs. Furthermore, they study the relations and interactions of the parts of compounds and develop analytical techniques. They also identify the presence and concentration of chemical pollutants in air, water, and soil. Organic chemists study the chemistry of the vast number of carbon compounds that make up all living things. Organic chemists who synthesize elements or simple compounds to create new compounds or substances that have different properties and applications have developed many commercial products, such as drugs, plastics, and elastomers (elastic substances similar to rubber). Inorganic chemists study compounds consisting mainly of elements other than carbon, such as those in electronic components. Physical and theoretical chemists study the physical characteristics of atoms and molecules and the theoretical properties of matter, and investigate how chemical reactions work. Their research may result in new and better energy sources. Macromolecular chemists study the behavior of atoms and molecules. Medicinal chemistsstudy the structural properties of compounds intended for applications to human medicine. Materials chemists study and develop new materials to improve existing products or make new ones. In fact, virtually all chemists are involved in this quest in one way or another. Developments in the field of chemistry that involve life sciences will expand, resulting in more interaction among biologists, engineers, and chemists. (Biochemists, whose work encompasses both biology and chemistry, are discussed in the Handbook statement on biological scientists.)