Advancing the chemical sciences

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘chemistry’?

If you have given it much thought – especially if chemistry is a subject you are considering studying at university – your answer will be very different from the caricature to be found in many less informed minds. Modern chemistry has little to do with sitting for hours in a starchy white coat, regarding unfathomable apparatus with the glazed eyes of a reality TV addict.

In fact the subject of chemistry is an activity that now embraces so many aspects of science, technology and medicine that it is becoming hard to assert with any certainty what chemistry is not. Here are just a handful of topics illustrating the fascinating scope of modern chemistry, most of which you can hope to find covered in a good chemistry degree course: the creation of new materials for solar energy harvesting; methods for trace analysis at crime scenes; the design of new anti-viral drugs; the origin of elements in the stars; non-intrusive methods of critical diagnosis; nanoparticle formation and applications; mechanisms for the flow of life chemicals across cell membranes; the creation of real and artificial gemstones; laser methods for targeting, moving and orienting individual molecules – and these are just the tip of one very large iceberg. That is the reason why the title of this article is taken from the recently adopted slogan of the Royal Society of Chemistry; their choice exhibits the fact that ‘chemical sciences’ is good, extended descriptor of what chemistry is really about.

Given the breadth of the subject, it is not surprising to find a wide variety of chemistry degree programmes available for study – particularly in the U.K. with its considerable strengths in the field. Even for ‘straight’ chemistry there are two types of degree you can undertake, the BSc degree which is usually three years duration, and the MChem ‘integrated Masters’ degree studied over four years. The latter is the preferred (but not invariable) route for those who from the outset are clearly intent on pursuing chemistry after graduation. A research project generally forms a significant part of the final assessment for an MChem degree, providing finalyear students with invaluable hands-on experience of cutting edge chemical research; it is no surprise that most such finalists are enthusiastic and graduate with a high class Honours degree.

As you will discover from browsing the websites, many other types of chemistry degree are on offer at most universities, some combining chemistry with elements of other allied disciplines, such as chemical physics, medicinal chemistry or pharmacy. Still others involve a year to be spent in industry or at an overseas university. Bear in mind, too, that within each degree programme it will usually be possible to make some free choice course selections, reflecting your developing interests in specific areas of the subject. With so much to choose from it is always advisable, if you can, to visit prospective universities and judge for yourself.

Prospectuses and websites are a good start, but there is no substitute for coming to talk to staff and current students, to get a feel for each place and its surroundings. If you plan to spend three or four years of your life somewhere, best be sure you will be happy and well catered for there. From its very earliest days, chemistry has attracted students through its intrinsic interest, and this remains a powerfully good motive for choosing the subject.

When we are involved in something that captures our imagination, it tends to bring out our best. However another very good and equally valid reason for choosing chemistry is that a qualification in this subject puts the new graduate on a very firm and distinctive footing in the employment market – both within the U.K. and internationally.

Chemists are involved in the science base of the hugest industries (pharmaceuticals, foods, plastics, transport and energy production, for example) and chemical techniques are now applied in the forefront methods of atmospheric research, forensic science and security, medical imaging and food standards, to name but a few. Many of those who enter research laboratories become involved in the development and formulation of new drugs, the determination of biomolecular structures and functions, or the devising of new methods for creating materials such as polymers from sources other than increasingly costly (also environmentally and politically problematic) oil. Chemical industry is a major part of the economy of the U.K., as it is of any almost developed nation, and those who acquire relevant skills and knowledge have a significant employment asset. Above there is a need for a new generation of wellinformed and enthusiastic chemistry graduates to enter the profession of teaching, to begin planting seeds of the subject for its future. Career prospects here, too, are excellent.

 

When I first went to university, I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards, but the interest of the subject drew me onwards. Since day one, I have found chemistry unfolding into an ever-expanding realm of fascinating and sometimes truly astonishing science. Not so long ago, no-one guessed that wonderfully symmetric spherical 60-atom molecules of pure carbon were present in even ordinary smoke – and if they could have guessed, they could hardly have envisaged the range of applications now emerging. No-one knew the beautiful structures that have quite recently been identified within complex proteins; the progress has been revolutionary. Chemistry races on; it has already left the millennium far behind. I warmly invite you to come and participate in the excitement of a subject with its face firmly set to the future. Professor David L. Andrews Head of Chemistry, University of East Anglia


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