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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Education and Writing: A Chemist’s Perspective

Everything from life on Earth to the collapse of a star can be categorized into one of three disciplines of natural science, which build upon each other in the following order: physics, chemistry, and biology. Chemistry, the bridge between biological life and the more abstract characteristics of the universe, has virtually unlimited applications. Scientists known as chemists have studied and attempted to control chemical ideas and processes for thousands of years. Equipped with a modern understanding of nature and concepts of systematic design, today’s chemists are responsible for devising the processes used to create items such as toothpaste, steel alloys, plastic, rocket fuel, computer chips, and many more. In addition to understanding and utilizing chemical principles, chemists must use technical writing and oral presentation skills to communicate complex ideas and scientific findings to the scientific community. Documents such as process descriptions and research articles require great amounts of detail to deliver information effectively. Because of the large scope of chemistry, a thorough chemical education takes many years. For higher paying and more complex work, a PhD in chemistry is required.

As chemistry is a very versatile and comprehensive science, it follows that a chemical career is too. Chemists can find a job in any industry, whether it be a government research lab or an ammonia production plant. The most common place of work for chemists is the laboratory, but some chemists spend time in the field. In the lab, teams of chemists are headed by a project-lead, typically a PhD. Researchers in teams devise and carry out experiments or work on developing and optimizing chemical processes ( Chemists utilize a variety of analytical techniques such as spectrophotometry, mass spectrometry, chromatography, and electron microscopy to learn about specific chemical properties. Data gathered by chemists can lead to future research, or even be used to improve current products or processes.

Research articles, a genre of technical writing, is a vehicle of this data, used commonly by chemists. After a research team has conducted experiments and other tests, data is collected and systematically analyzed. The process of writing research papers is a meticulous one; one that places greater importance on the clarity of information presented than grammar and spelling. This is not to say that they are wrought with errors, however, as proper use of language is critical to proper writing. Scientific articles contain an abstract, or paper summary, followed by a section introducing the research topic. Next, a materials and methods section details how the researchers collected the data they did, with enough detail that an independent researcher could replicate the experiment. Presentation and interpretation of the importance of data is discussed in a results and discussion section. High quality tables and graphs are used to display various data effectively, and should be done in a way that is easily understandable. Papers usually end with a conclusion, once again summarizing the findings. Tables and graphs displaying various data are spread throughout the paper, referenced in the results section (Veberic et al.).

Any chemist must be familiar with this process of technical writing in order to interact with their peers in a meaningful way. It should also be mentioned that good chemists can read and interpret the research articles of other scientists. This step is a critical part of the chemist’s writing process. Information published by other researchers can be used to design new experiments, and must be referenced in new reports. Any published article is littered with references to the discoveries of others.

In the same vein as writing to conclude research, chemists frequently write lab procedures and safety protocol before the experimentation starts. An experiment must be well thought out and written down in a stepwise manner to ensure the experiment is carried out properly. Standardization of experimental procedures is key to replication of data, and can be used to point out possible flaws in the research afterwards. The language in the procedure should be clear and concise, as it will be used as a set of instructions. It should not have any eloquent or wordy language, as that takes away from the documents purpose.

Oral presentations are also an important part of a chemist’s job. Knowledgeable researchers are able to convey information in person to a number of audiences, which each require a personalized presentation. For instance, a research group presenting data to company executives will forego technical jargon and details in their presentation, focusing on progress and the economic potential of the research. A presentation to biologists might contain information on how the chemist’s findings are useful to a biologist, promoting cross-disciplinary work.

Another type of technical writing used by chemists is grant writing, or drafting a proposal detailing why the chemist’s research is deserving of funding. Researchers may seek funding from a number of sources, such as companies, governments, or even charity organizations. A chemist’s proposal for funding of the same research might look different if it were being submitted to an oil corporation than to a state government. This is because each audience has specific goals and visions, and they must be shown how the research can possibly benefit them.

The species of technical writing referenced above are examples of rhetoric used in and around the lab. But, not all that chemists write has to be strictly formal. Informal writing between familiar colleagues is acceptable. Much of the time however, chemists’ and other scientists’ informal communication still has higher grammatical and structural standards than that of less educated professions and personal writing.

Because technical writing requires study and practice, it is often taught in most tertiary chemistry programs. There are a number of degree-granting programs involving chemistry in colleges and universities, as well as a few levels of education. The lowest form of professional education in chemistry is the associate’s degree. This level of learning only opens up a few possibilities for employment in the field of chemistry, and most with this degree end up working as lab technicians, carrying out simple, yet tedious tasks for senior scientists.

The next degree is the bachelor’s, which opens up many more possibilities for a career. This is the minimum education required for entry-level chemist and materials scientist positions ( For the chemistry, undergraduate degree at the University of Utah, students must take three semesters of calculus, as well as linear algebra and partial differential equations. These classes are required for carrying out complex calculations. Chemistry students are also required to take a year of physics. The remainder of the degree credits are chemistry classes, from general chemistry to quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, and biochemistry. Degree specialization and emphasis is also possible through careful selection of electives. Business, biology, computer science, and engineering classes all bolster the student’s education and allow for an individualized education, dependent upon the interests of the student (University of Utah, “Chemistry Course Requirements”)

To advance beyond entry-level positions, at least a master’s degree in chemistry is needed. Research and high-level courses related to the student’s research are the requirements for this degree. After the students has completed their research, they must present and defend a thesis to a special committee. If the committee votes to pass the student, a master’s degree in chemistry is granted (University of Utah, “Graduate Handbook, 25).

Further opportunities for advancement are offered by selective doctorate and post-doctorate programs, which are similar to a master’s degree, but are more research intensive and require no additional coursework. Postdoctoral fellows are often paid to do research at the institution of their fellowship (Slessor).

Outlined here is the job description of a chemist, the genres of writing chemists often use, and a brief overview of some of the possibilities for an education in chemistry. Chemists employ this education and technical writing to further the understanding of the natural world, find ways to improve quality of life, and report findings to others. For more information on specific chemical careers, job-shadowing opportunities and community outreach programs are often sponsored by local organizations.

Works Cited

Chemists and Materials Scientists.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Veberic, Robert, Franci Stampar, Valentina Schmitzer, Vlasta Cunja, Anka Zupan, Darinka Koron, and Maja Mikulic-Petkovsek. “Changes in the Contents of Anthocyanins and Other Compounds in Blackberry Fruits Due to Freezing and Long-Term Frozen Storage.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 62.29 (2014): 6926-935. Web.

Chemistry Course Requirements – Professional Emphasis (2016-17) (n.d.): n. pag. University of Utah, 2016. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Department of Chemistry, University of Utah. Graduate Student Handbook.

Slessor, Kate. Personal Interview. 13 April 2017.

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