Biochemistry programs apply chemistry to the study of how biological organisms
function (including you and me). It's about the mechanics of life.
As a biochemistry student, you might study anything from the workings of
amino acids in humans to the way industrial chemicals affect plant life.
You'll need a good grounding in the basic sciences: chemistry, biology and
physics. Math is important, too.
So are computer skills. "I think that computer skills are assumed in this
day and age," says Robert Bertolo. He's deputy head of a department of biochemistry
at a university.
"I don't think you're necessarily tested on it, but I think you're expected
to pick up on it pretty quick."
"Being able to not just manipulate a word processing document, but really
working with spreadsheets and statistical software is... really important,"
says Ann Aguanno. "And using the power of a computer to analyze data, to organize
data, to appreciate what information is telling you." Aguanno is an associate
professor of biology at Marymount Manhattan College.
As you might expect, you should study chemistry in high school if you plan
to study biochemistry at university. Take organic chemistry if it's offered.
"And as much laboratory experience as they can [get], because the laboratory
experience allows them to apply the principles, and often that's the best
way to drive those concepts home," says Aguanno.
Don't neglect your communication skills.
"Science is all about communication," says Aguanno. "The way science advances
is by scientists communicating with each other." Getting involved in research
involves honing your ability to read and understand lots of background material.
And you have to write about your research results.
"If you achieve anything in a research project, even if it's a small answer,
you can usually go present it somewhere, so your communication skills are
being honed further there," says Aguanno. "And of course having strong communication
skills to begin with is going to help that tremendously."
A lot of people study biochemistry because they hope to get into medical
school. Their ultimate goal is typically to become a physician or medical
"Biochemistry would be considered one of the more specialized sciences,"
says Bertolo. "Biochemistry is typically associated with medical school, so
it's more related to the medical field.
"It's not usually offered until third year," Bertolo adds. "Sometimes there
are introductory courses in second year, but it's not what we consider an
intro science. So, for example, if you're going to go into biochemistry, you
would take first-year biology, chemistry and physics, and get into biochemistry
in the later years. It's more of a specialized science than it is a general
There's something else that makes biochemistry different from other sciences:
"Biochem is not just observational, it's really mechanistic," says Aguanno.
"So if you really want to understand how things are working, biochemistry
is going to take you there.... It's biochemistry that's going to drive everything
-- how biological molecules interact, what the chemical principles are that
drive those interactions."
Biochemistry students spend a lot of time in the lab. That means their
schedules are usually pretty busy. Time management skills will serve you well.
If you don't get a taste of research in high school, you'll get plenty
in college. You can also expect to do an internship at some point during your
"Many schools, depending on their size, either require onsite [research]
activities, or if they're a smaller school [they will] arrange for you to
do something off campus -- what we would call either an internship or an externship,"
says Aguanno. "Most schools will require it or they'll strongly encourage
it, and the only reason they don't require it is because they're limited in
the resources they have."
Extracurricular activities can help you prepare. Some universities and
government organizations offer summer programs for students interested in
"There are actually quite a few programs now for high school students,
as a matter of fact, that we often get involved with," says Bertolo. "We've
got senior high school students not only doing science fairs, but there's
all sorts of incentives and competitions for them to take part in."
Biochemistry students are often surprised by one aspect of their studies:
"The amount of work that they need to do, the amount of reading, [and] the
dense aspect of the material," says Aguanno. "The content is quite dense,
so even if it's only 30 pages they need to read tonight, it's very dense what
University students can sometimes get away with "coasting" much of the
semester and cramming for exams. Not so in biochemistry.
"That will not work with any science degree, but especially with a biochemistry
degree," says Aguanno. "You really need to recognize that it is a commitment....
You cannot say, 'OK, I'll just study a couple of days before the exam.'
You must keep up and... the material is quite dense and you can't take a cavalier
attitude towards it. You really need to focus and pay attention. You need
to have really strong comprehension skills."
The major cost in this program, aside from tuition, is textbooks. Some
universities require students to purchase a laptop if they don't already have
one. Many universities also charge laboratory fees. These can range from $100
to $200 per course, says Aguanno.
Occupational Outlook Handbook
For more information related to this field of study, see: Biological
An academic journal
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