BIOCHEMISTRY

We've interviewed 4 Biochemistry alumni to give you first hand insights into the degree! Find out what a Biochemistry degree entails, the skills they've developed and some great (and purposely random) advice for prospective students!

What is Biochemistry all about?

Contrary to the popular assumption that you’ll be studying Biology and Chemistry separately, Biochemistry brings these subjects (and many more!) together to form a scientific discipline in its own right.

 

Biochemistry is all about combining the complementary principles from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and even Mathematics to help us understand physiological processes that are taking place at the molecular and cellular level.

Excitingly, industry, as well as blue skies research in this field, has allowed us to devise revolutionary solutions to a myriad of challenges we face in our current society. What’s more, this fascinating subject also serves as a foundation for us to build upon many other scientific disciplines such as Bioinformatics, Genetics, Systems Biology, Structural Biology, Biophysics and many more.

Below, you can explore the variety of topics and themes covered in a typical Biochemistry undergraduate degree. Keep in mind that you are able to specialise as you advance through the degree, so you may study certain topics in more depth depending on your choices.

Thus, one could argue that Biochemistry truly is - the science of life.

Typical topics covered in a Biochemistry degree

Biological chemistry

The key objective of this topic is for you to develop an appreciation of how living systems respect the fundamental laws of nature. You would most likely learn about the major classes of biological molecules (nucleic acids, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids) alongside the various ways that they interact in biological systems within the constraints of physical and chemical laws.

 

On that note, a strong background in Chemistry (and a little bit of Physics) will strengthen your foundations in these subjects, but fear not, as your Professors will provide you with all the basic knowledge that you will need.

You will become familiar with atomic structure, the different types of chemical bonding, oxidation-reduction reactions, equilibrium, organic chemistry and reaction mechanisms, isomerisms, thermodynamics, and membrane potentials (though bear in mind that this list is non-exhaustive).

Enzymes and metabolism

In most cases, you’re likely to learn about the structures of all 20 essential amino acids that are prevalent in proteins, and you must familiarise yourself with the chemical reactivities of each amino acid side chain. Following that, you could anticipate reading about the different levels of protein structure (primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary). In particular, you’ll probably need to gain an appreciation of the structure-function relationships of proteins and their dynamics.

 

Chances are also that you’ll be learning about how enzymes work and the kinetics of their organic reaction mechanisms. Other than that, you would study important thermodynamic and kinetic parameters, the function of coenzymes, and significant functional groups contributing to enzyme catalysis.

 

Discussions surrounding bioenergy may be covered as well; you could expect to learn about the variety of metabolic strategies (how proteins and their structure are built/broken down), how energy is managed in the biological systems in addition to how biological molecules get interconverted during the processes of metabolism at a cellular level.

Cellular and molecular biology

To give you an idea, you are probably going to study the differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, why cells compartmentalise their functions, the role of various organelles (e.g. the nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, and peroxisomes), membrane biology, and the cell cycle.

As you go a little deeper into this topic, you can look forward to learning about how molecules, cells, as well as organs are integrated into functional biological systems. This will include themes like cell signalling, plant biology, stem cell biology, immunology, and even neuroscience. What’s more, you can also draw links between these subjects with contrasting topics such as cancer, which gives you a perspective on what happens if these normal physiological processes go south.

In addition to that, you’ll be introduced to the core concepts of genes and the “Central Dogma”, where you’ll understand how the biological mechanisms eventually lead to the production of proteins. Meanwhile, it is likely that you’ll learn about the anatomy of genes, DNA, and RNA in great detail - their structures, common characteristics and features, how they function inside our body, and how they could be manipulated within a laboratory setting.

 

Key principles such as Mendelian genetics, DNA replication and repair, transcription, translation, transduction, hybridisation, melting, methylation, cloning, plasmids, vectors, bacteriophages, pseudogenes, gene expression and regulation, population genetics, and metagenomics are likely to be echoed in lecture theatres.

Microbiology and immunology

Oftentimes, this topic invites you to explore the diversity of microorganisms in our world, most notably bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae, archaea, and protozoa. Don’t be surprised if your professor touches upon the characteristics of these different groups of microorganisms, their structure and roles in the environment, how they are equipped with amazing survival skills, or how they are capable of causing diseases in animals and humans.

 

At the same time, you can expect a Biochemistry degree to give you an overview of how our immune system works, and how they are equipped to defend your body in the case of an infection. You'll be intrigued to learn the intricate and complex responses happening behind the scenes, and find out what can occur if any tiny step in the process goes wrong.

Bioinformatics

There’s a high chance that you’ll be provided with a theoretical understanding of the methods and algorithms used to analyse macromolecular sequences as well as structures. For example, you may also come across terms such as "computational ‘omics", which is a set of technologies designed to help us explore the functions and relationships of the many different molecules that comprise a living organism. As you progress to become an advanced learner, you might also get the opportunity to get a taste of computational biology, a topic focusing on developing mathematical models, computer simulations, and other data-driven analytics to investigate issues raised by studies in bioinformatics.

 

In many cases, the course would challenge you to acquire programming skills and get some hands-on experience using the relevant software (such as Python, NCBI BLAST, Linux...) and data types that a typical bioinformatics research project would encompass.

Structural biology and biophysics

This is a branch of biochemistry that looks into the structures of biological molecules and how alterations in their structures impact their regular functions. You’ll need a solid foundation in biological chemistry concepts to get through this topic, and experimental techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), X-ray crystallography, cryogenic electron microscopy (cryoEM), and mass spectrometry would be common everyday terms in this field of study.


In case you were not aware, this field of study is central to the drug development process. Plus, the scientific community is beginning to realise how this topic intertwines a lot with bioinformatics/computational biology, with one of the best examples showcasing this being the development of the AlphaFold by Google DeepMind - an artificial intelligence programme designed to predict protein structures.

Quantitative principles

Whether you like it or not, biochemists will still be surrounded by Mathematics, especially topics like statistics, calculus, and algebra. Finding trends, interpreting graphs, understanding the basic details of mathematical principles such as the Fourier transform, derivatives, and even the Taylor series are all part of the learning package.


As a matter of fact, these fundamentals are important stepping stones to help us understand other complex branches of Biochemistry such as Integrative Systems Biology. That being said, you by no means need to be an ace at mathematics - a solid foundation from you Maths A Level is more than enough to help you through!

Skills you are likely to develop

Technical skills

To begin with, biochemists would need to gain an in-depth theoretical knowledge of various complex biological processes. In addition, they will also have to understand the different laboratory techniques that researchers could employ to study the functions and interactions of key components or players in the system.

 

Once equipped with the basic biochemical facts and theories, students would usually be challenged to apply their learnings to a practical setting. On that note, you will most likely undertake a wide range of wet (involves handling biological materials and chemicals) and dry (where you will be doing a lot of computer simulations) lab work which requires an appreciation of various best practices in science.

 

Observation skills, advanced numerical abilities (e.g. performing statistical analysis, calculus), the ability to conduct a review of the current literature, the ability to propose/design reproducible experiments and identify limitations, developing manual dexterity, data analysis and interpretation, computational modelling skills, report writing, presentation skills, as well as having an awareness of ethical issues are all examples of the practical skills that you will develop throughout your Biochemistry degree.

 

To go into further detail, some of the popular laboratory techniques that you’ll most likely get to practice in a Biochemistry degree course include:

 

 

Though, bear in mind that this list is subjective and largely depends on a university’s resources, facilities, and expertise. Sometimes, you could even try out more advanced techniques such as X-ray crystallography, whole-genome sequencing, CRISPR-Cas9, or cryogenic electron microscopy if you undertake laboratory-based projects (usually offered in the final year of your undergraduate study) or through summer wet-lab research projects that you may be part of.

 

Moreover, you could also anticipate Biochemistry programmes to offer learning opportunities on how to use different software such as:

 

  • Microsoft Office products (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)

  • Latex (a document preparation system)

  • RStudio (a programming language for statistical computing and graphics)

  • MATLAB (a programming and numeric computing platform)

  • Python (a high-level and general-purpose programming language)

  • Linux (an open-source operating system)

  • NCBI BLAST (a sequence similarity search program for bioinformaticians)

  • Phyre/Phyre2 (free web-based services for protein structure prediction)

  • GraphPad Prism (basically “Microsoft Excel on steroids”)

  • PyMOL (a molecular visualization system)

  • Coot (an X-ray crystallography modelling program)

  • SnapGene (a software to visualise molecular biology procedures)

  • FlowJo (a software package for analyzing flow cytometry data)

 

Hopefully, all of these IT and technical skill training would allow you to build up your confidence in using scientific techniques and technology to learn more about biochemistry. Not to mention, these are highly sought-after skills that are extremely transferable between different professions.

 

Additionally, you can improve your science communication skills by challenging yourself to explain complicated theories to non-experts or the general public during conferences and seminars. On certain occasions, you may also have the opportunity to hone your pitching skills as well as your financial planning and management capabilities.

 

These are particularly crucial skills to have as it is imperative to realise that biochemistry research typically requires significant amounts of funding. Oftentimes, these funding opportunities are offered by governments. For example, if you are in the UK, most of the biochemistry research funding comes from Research Councils such as the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), or the MRC (Medical Research Council), all of which are part of the United Kingdom Research & Innovation (UKRI). Meanwhile, you could also get research grants from industry players, charity organisations (e.g. the Wellcome Trust), or even private foundations (e.g. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

 

Despite the existence of multiple funding entities, applications are extremely competitive. So, you’ll need to be good at selling your ideas through written and/or verbal communication in addition to demonstrating your competence at managing money.

Soft skills

Importantly, Biochemistry is a broad subject that overlaps with many other disciplines (and not just the sciences!). So, having advanced knowledge in this field of study is highly likely to contribute to our efforts in achieving an ideal standard of living.

  • Analytical and critical thinking skills

It doesn’t matter whether you are writing a lab report or completing a literature review for your final year project, your ability to analyse and think critically about the information made available to you via journals or books is key to help you achieve top grades. This is because an outstanding biochemist must know how to evaluate experimental data or observations in an unbiased and logical manner before formulating conclusions from them.

 

  • Problem-solving skills and creativity

In reality, rote learning Biochemistry can only bring you limited returns as it usually doesn’t push you to gain a deeper understanding of the subject and form connections between other topics. After all, no one cares if you are able to recite the entire Krebs Cycle and other enzyme mechanisms by heart or have memorised the structure of the picornavirus.

 

Instead, the research community values the ability to use the knowledge you have to accomplish something else. For instance, help us gain a better understanding of the world around us, design a metabolic pathway to create new biofuels, or even develop new experiments to fashion a vaccine. These skills, in other words, are known as problem-solving and creativity skills, and they grant us the ability to think outside the box so that we can solve decade-long research challenges or find solutions to common problems in the laboratory.

 

  • Leadership and collaboration

With group projects and assignments becoming an increasingly popular addition to the university’s education curriculum, you can definitely expect to find yourself having to learn how to work well with others, build a cohesive and supportive team culture, as well as cultivate a responsible work ethic and image.

 

Furthermore, you'll also be pushed to build your interpersonal skills as you probably would need to interact with diverse groups of people studying the same subject as you in a professional manner. To put it simply, this reflects the working environment of labs around the world, where you will most likely be working with a very diverse and interdisciplinary team of scientists towards a common research goal. And through this, an appreciation for diversity is also developed as no man is indeed an island.

 

  • Planning, decision-making, time management skills

Biochemistry research usually gives you the opportunity to take ownership of your own work. Therefore, if you want to be a successful scientist, you’ll have to be proactive at planning out your work in addition to being efficient at managing and prioritising multiple tasks at hand so that you can submit high-quality deliverables by a specified deadline. Besides that, these challenges can also indirectly help you learn to manage stress more effectively, which is another plus point of your degree.

 

Overall, it is clear that Biochemistry graduates would be equipped with all the necessary skill sets to demonstrate that they have the potential to not only be highly analytical, excellent problem-solvers, and communicators, but also people who are capable of working in a wide range of professions such as academia, pharmaceuticals, sales and marketing, teaching, law (in particular, intellectual property), investment banking, consulting, fund management, accountancy, government/public sector, science journalism, publishing, business management, and even entrepreneurship (just to name a few).

Why does Biochemistry matter?

Medicine, pharmacy, and public health - the classic examples

Biochemistry serves as the foundation for subjects such as Structural Biology, Toxicology, and Genomics. In fact, most of the drug design and development work in our world today tend to be structure-based. This basically means that we need to study the three-dimensional (3D) structure of drugs and their targets if we want to fashion more effective vaccines and medications that can prevent, diagnose, treat, and hopefully eradicate diseases/disorders that have been haunting us for decades or even centuries.

 

Other than that, the rising prevalence of antibiotic resistance necessitates further biochemical research into learning more about the mechanisms and pathways that contribute to this phenomenon as well as discovering novel substances or material that possess antimicrobial properties.

 

Besides that, we can also apply our knowledge in Biochemistry to put an end to health threats before they even begin. For instance, biochemists have contributed to the creation of genetically modified mosquitoes that break the malaria transmission cycle by inventing the sterile insect technique (SIT) and the release of insects carrying a dominant lethal (RIDL) strategy. Thus, we can protect our population from disease outbreaks and epidemics.

And of course, food!

To put it simply:

 

  • Developing crops with greater resistance to external threats such as diseases and pests

  • Creating more nutritious foods such as probiotics to boost the general population’s health

  • Using Synthetic Biology to innovate cheaper ways of producing food

  • Increasing the shelf life of vegetables (which is notoriously short!)

  • Inventing new agrochemicals that fills your dinner table with more to eat

 

They all need Biochemistry.

We also have forensics, law enforcement, and policies

Besides its real-world applications in medicine and agriculture, which are probably what most people would first think of, Biochemistry also plays a role in shaping government policies, funding allocations, and media coverage. Great examples of this would be the country policies that were initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic based on the data obtained from epidemiological modelling and COVID tests - both of which require a sound understanding of Biochemistry.

 

Meanwhile, Biochemistry is also a key subject contributing to justice as well, for which law enforcement has become increasingly reliant on biochemistry-based techniques to aid detectives in hunting for clues and evidence during crime scene investigations.

Everyday items are on the list too

Think about detergent, toothpaste, food additives, commercially available insulin, cosmetic products, your favourite snack for guilty pleasure...

 

These are examples of the many products and services that biochemists are definitely involved in during its research and development phases. Essentially, Biochemistry serves as one of the baseline knowledge that powers (bio)chemical, beauty, brewing, food science and technology, and consumer goods industries.

And potentially, energy and our environment

As constantly reminded by renowned public figures such as Bill Gates, Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, the negative impacts of climate change are on the rise and also becoming increasingly disturbing.

 

Today, world leaders are discussing how we could better address current environmental problems. In particular, we need to find ways to cut down our carbon footprint, solve the global warming issue, develop effective environmental monitoring strategies, and fulfill the global demand for renewable energy sources.

 

Advances in Biochemistry play an essential role in impacting climate change. As research in this subject permits us to understand the basis of biological mechanisms, we could develop cutting-edge biotechnology products and industrial processes such as algal biofuels, biological photovoltaics, and carbon sequestration. And if we are successful at scaling its development, this will open many doors for new economic opportunities in the future.

 

Given that this is a relatively new area of study, it is more likely that we would only see the environmental impacts of these novel solutions over the next 20 to 50 years. Regardless, it is good to remember that these are all emerging from the pioneering biochemical research that we are conducting today.

Hang on, we still don’t know everything 

At the end of the day, we have only been able to illustrate a few examples of how our knowledge in Biochemistry can benefit the human race. However, there is a high chance the complete real-world applications of our vast knowledge in this area has not been made apparent to us... yet.

 

Thus, this highlights a need to continue viewing curiosity-driven science as “the ultimate engine of all scientific and technological evolution” as we can never really know what our biochemical knowledge has in store for us in the years to come.

How do I know if Biochemistry is for me?

With all things considered, it probably comes with no surprise that a Biochemistry degree programme is going to be very challenging. Thus, the first criterion you need to have at the very top of your list of checkboxes is - do you have an appreciation of Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics being essential subjects to help us understand biology?

 

In short, an excellent biochemist sees the beauty in the subject’s interdisciplinarity. They realise how Biochemistry essentially brings all of the scientific disciplines together to help them study all sorts of biological and chemical processes that are taking place within living organisms.

 

Having genuine passion, resilience and a curious mindset would be the next criteria on the list. The simplest reason for that would be - you must remember that not all revolutionary advances in Biochemistry have culminated in a Nobel Prize award (or even a nomination), with examples of such including the invention of the DNA fingerprinting technique as well as the proof-of-concept study showcasing the world’s first-ever animal clone, Dolly the sheep.

 

Henceforth, you will need to actually be interested in Biochemistry, or at least intrigued about what you’ve read above.

 

Keep on asking questions about the world we live in from a biological point-of-view, and adjust your mindset to view science as a way for us to contribute to mankind - whether or not the outcome of our research has immediate real-world applications. What’s more, having self-awareness is critical to ensure you can continuously push yourself to improve your technical and soft skills for the greater good.

biochemistry through the lens of universities

we've included just a few universities - you can find many more through a simple Google search

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