Chemistry (including Biochemistry)/Picking Your Focus

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QUESTION: Hi! This isn't really a homework or theory question. I'm a sophomore chemistry major, and I'm trying to begin to sort out what I want to focus on in chemistry. Right now I am thinking about biochemistry, physical chemistry, electrochemistry, and environmental chemistry. Organic chemistry hasn't been really interested to me so far.

I was wondering what advice you would give to someone who is starting to think about what road they want to go down. I like the math in chemistry, but I'm also interested in the enzymes and chemicals in the body. Likewise things like electricity and energy also interest me.

Any general wisdom or advice you have about figuring this out would be great. Thank you!

ANSWER: Hi Chris!

Tough choices! A couple things to think about, and remember that you don't have to decide everything perfectly the first time.

Hopefully this semester you're taking physical chemistry. The intense math focus of physical chemistry may appeal to you; if it does, I'd suggest physical and electrochemistry.

If you take physical chemistry and aren't too fond of it, then I'd recommend biochemistry. You'll still need the physical chem principles for biochemistry, after all.

I could see either track serving you well for environmental chemistry; you'd just come at it from differing angles.

A couple notes.

I'm involved in academic research. If your interest lies there, even given the long hours, intense competition, and low pay, then at least taking a biochemistry course may be exceptionally handy. The National Institute of Health is the main medical granting agency in the US, and if you can make your chemistry biological and disease related, you'll be in a great place to win grant funding or work in a biotech startup.

If your interest lies in a non-biological path, I'd recommend talking to some of the other experts for their perspective; I'm an academic PhD in biochemistry, after all. You may not need a PhD to succeed exceptionally well in industry, for example.

Good luck!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for the advice! I was wondering if I could just ask what you think about the job prospects in biochemistry and chemistry right now. Everything I have read online has said run to the hills when it comes to graduate school and any form of chemistry. Academia definitely appeals to me, although I'm willing to work in industry if there isn't an opportunity in academia.

Guess I don't mind making sacrifices with grad school as trying to learn more about chemistry, but I don't want to be jumping off of a cliff, if that makes sense. I do want to have a family at some point and enjoy a personal life, although I am okay with making some sacrifices during grad school.

Thank you so much for your help with my last question and any help with this one (promise it's my last one)!

Answer
Hi Chris!

As a biochemistry jobseeker, I can tell you the answer is usually 'All you need is one.' Other than that, I don't have any easy answers. No one does.

My best advice? Try a bunch of stuff. Be creative. Figure out what interests you, gets you going, makes you want to keep learning. Do that. Think about how you'll manage to get paid for it. Keep doing it. If you can keep getting paid a living wage to do it, let the joy that fires you carry you through. (There may be a moonlighting phase where you do something else to get off the ground. That happens.)

What will help - experience. Talk to the people in the field that are near you. See if you can get a voluntary or paid internship. Get experience in what interests you however you can. If there aren't people near you, figure out how to do it on your own. Talk to high school and college instructors for help, as well as local businesses. Do things and tell others about them so you can put them on your resume. Get fired up and make things happen.

Connect to scientists and chemists on Twitter. @chemjobber, @drugmonkeyblog, @drisis, and @DoctorZen are good starts. Find people that interest you, or a disease that interests you, and start there.

Consider that there are careers in government and policy as well as simple academia and industry. If enviro and health concerns really appeal to you, consider volunteering for some public policy programs or local politicians as an advisor. There will always be a demand for folks that can explain chemistry well to the people who make the laws. Go to www.usajobs.gov and type in 'student'. You may be eligible for one or more programs that can really give you a boost to something different and interesting. Apply to that stuff. Make sure you follow all the instructions to the letter, and try sending it in twice. (As in, if you really want it, apply again once after they reject you.)

Speaking out of my butt... don't spend more than 10 minutes a day listening to your inner voice (or other's voices) that says 'I can't do this'. You probably can do it, you'll just need to figure out if you want to change your life enough to get there. You may discover you don't love it 'enough' or you need money to support a family. That's ok. Things change. Chemists aren't dumb. You can work around it and find your happy.

Good luck. It's a jungle out there. :)

Chemistry (including Biochemistry)

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Trista Robichaud, PhD

Expertise

No homework questions, especially ones copied and pasted from textbooks. I will answer questions about principles or give hints, but I do not do other's homework. I'm comfortable answering basic biochemistry, chemistry, and biology questions up to and including an undergraduate level of understanding. This includes molecular biology, protein purification, and genetics. My training/inclination is primarily in structural biology, or how the shapes of things affect their function. Other interests include protein design, protein engineering, enzyme kinetics, and metabolic diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. My chemistry weaknesses are that I do not know organic or inorganic synthesis well, nor am I familiar with advanced inorganic reactions. I will attempt quantum mechanics and thermodynamics questions, but primarily as they relate to biological systems. Furthermore, I cannot tell you if a skin photograph is cancerous, or otherwise diagnose any disease. I can tell you how we currently understand the basic science behind a disease state, but I cannot recommend treatment in any way. Please direct such questions to your medical professional.

Experience

I hold a PhD in Biomedical Science from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. I specialize in Biochemistry, with a focus on protein chemistry. My thesis work involved the structure and functions of the human glucose transporter 1. (hGLUT1) Currently I am a postdoc working in peptide (mini-protein) design and enzymology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. I am in Bjorn Steffensen's lab (PhD, DDS), studying gelatinase A and oral carcinoma.

Organizations
2001 American Association for the Advancement of Science
2007 American Chemical Society
2007 Protein Society
2011 UTHSCSA Women’s Faculty Association


Publications
Levine KB, Robichaud TK, Hamill S, Sultzman LA, Carruthers A. Properties of the human erythrocyte glucose transport protein are determined by cellular context. Biochemistry 44(15):5606-16, 2005. (PMID 15823019)
Robichaud TK, Appleyard AN, Herbert RB, Henderson PJ, Carruthers A “Determinants of ligand binding affinity and cooperativity at the GLUT1 endofacial site” Biochemistry 50(15):3137-48, 2011. (PMID 21384913)
Xu X, Mikhailova M, Chen Z, Pal S, Robichaud TK, Lafer EM, Baber S, Steffensen B. “Peptide from the C-terminal domain of tissue inhibitor of matrix metalloproteinases-2 (TIMP-2) inhibits membrane activation of matrix metalloproteinase-2 (MMP-2)” Matrix Biol. 2011 Sep;30(7-8):404-12. (PMID: 21839835)
Robichaud TK, Steffensen B, Fields GB. Exosite interactions impact matrix metalloproteinase collagen specificities. J Biol Chem. 2011 Oct 28;286(43):37535-42 (PMID: 21896477)

Poster Abstracts:
Robichaud TK, Carruthers. A "Mutagenesis of the Human type 1 glucose transporter exit site: A functional study." ACS 234th Meeting, Boston MA. Division of Biological Chemistry, 2007
Robichaud TK, Bhowmick M, Tokmina-Roszyk D, Fields GB “Synthesis and Analysis of MT1-MMP Peptide Inhibitors” Biological Chemistry Division of the Protein Society Meeting, San Diego CA 2010
Robichaud TK; Tokmina-Roszyk D; Steffensen B and Fields GB “Catalytic Domain Exosites Contribute to Determining Matrix Metalloproteinase Triple Helical Collagen Specificities” Dental Science Symposium. UTHSCSA 2011
Robichaud TK; Tokmina-Roszyk D; Steffensen B and Fields GB “Exosite Interactions Determine Matrix Metalloproteinase Specificities” Gordon Research Conference on Matrix Metalloproteinase Biology, Bristol RI 2011


Education/Credentials
Oakland University, Auburn Hills MI BS, Biochemistry 1998
University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester MA PhD, Biochemistry & Molecular Pharmacology 2001-2008
University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio TX Postdoc, Biochemistry 2009-Present


Awards and Honors
1998 Honors College Graduate, Oakland University
2009 Institutional National Research Service Award, Pathobiology of Occlusive Vascular Disease T32 HL07446
2011 1st Place, Best Postdoctoral Poster, Dental Science Symposium, UTHSCSA, April 2011


Past/Present Clients
Invited Seminars:
Robichaud TK, Fields GB. “Synthesis and Analysis of MTI-MMP Triple Helical Peptide Inhibitors” Pathology Research Conference, University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio Pathology Department (June 18th, 2010)
Robichaud TK & Hill, B “How To Give A Great Scientific Talk” Invited Lecture, Pathobiology of Occlusive Vascular Disease Seminars, UTHSCSA (Nov 11th 2010), Cardiology Seminar Series, Texas Research Park (Feb 21st, 2011)
Robichaud TK; Tokmina-Roszyk D; Steffensen B and Fields GB “Exosite Interactions Determine Matrix Metalloproteinase Specificities” Gordon-Keenan Research Seminar “Everything You Wanted to Know About Matrix Metalloproteinases But Were Afraid to Ask” Bristol, RI (Aug 6th, 2011)

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