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Recognizing the Roles of Organic Chemists

Chemists working within the field of organic chemistry specialize in particular areas of research. Their specializations illustrate the diversity of the field of organic chemistry and its connection to other branches in chemistry, branches like physical chemistry, biochemistry, and inorganic chemistry.

Synthetic organic chemist

Synthetic organic chemists concern themselves with making organic molecules. In particular, synthetic chemists are interested in taking cheap and available starting materials and converting them into valuable products. Some synthetic chemists devote themselves to developing procedures that can be used by others in constructing complex molecules. These chemists want to develop general procedures that are flexible and can be used in synthesizing as many different kinds of molecules as possible. Others devote themselves to developing reactions that make certain kinds of bonds, such as carbon-carbon bonds.

Others use known procedures to tackle multistep syntheses — the making of complex compounds using many individual, known reactions. Performing these multistep syntheses tests the limits of known procedures. These multistep syntheses force innovation and creativity on the part of the chemist, in addition to encouraging endurance and flexibility when a step in the synthesis goes wrong (things inevitably go wrong during the synthesis of complex molecules). Such innovation contributes to the body of knowledge of organic chemistry.

Synthetic organic chemists often flock to the pharmaceutical industry, mapping out efficient reaction pathways to make drugs and optimizing reactions to make very complicated organic molecules as cheaply and efficiently as possible for use as pharmaceuticals. (Sometimes improving the yield of the reaction of a big-name drug by a few percentage points can save millions of dollars for a pharmaceutical company each year.)

Bioorganic chemist

Bioorganic chemists are particularly interested in the enzymes of living organisms. Enzymes are very large organic molecules, and are the worker bees of cells, catalyzing (speeding up) all of the reactions in the cell. These enzymes range from the moderately important ones, such as the ones that keep us alive by breaking down food and storing energy, to the really important ones, like the ones in yeasts that are responsible for fermentation, or the breaking down of sugars into alcohol.

These catalysts work with an efficiency and selectivity that synthetic organic chemists can only envy. Bioorganic chemists are particularly interested in looking at these marvels of nature, these enzymes, and determining how they operate. When chemists understand the mechanisms of how these enzymes catalyze particular reactions in the cell, this knowledge can be used to design enzyme inhibitors, molecules that block the action of these enzymes.

Such inhibitors make up a great deal of the drugs on the market today. Aspirin, for example, is an inhibitor of the cyclooxegenase (COX) enzymes. These COX enzymes are responsible for making the pain transmitters in the body (called the prostaglandins). These transmitters are the messengers that tell your brain to inflict a great and mighty pain in the thumb that you just smashed with a slip of your hammer. When the aspirin drug inhibits these COX enzymes from operating, the enzymes in your body can no longer make these pain-signaling molecules. In this way, the feeling of pain in the body is reduced.

Natural products chemist

Natural products chemists isolate compounds from living things. Organic compounds isolated from living organisms are called natural products. Throughout history, drugs have come from natural products. In fact, only recently have drugs been made synthetically in the lab. Penicillin, for example, is a natural product produced by a fungus, and this famous drug has saved millions of lives by killing harmful bacteria. The healing properties of herbs and teas and other "witches' brews" are usually the result of the natural products contained in the plants. Some Native American groups chewed willow bark to relieve pain, as the bark contained the active form of aspirin; other Native American groups engaged in the smoking of peyote, which contains a natural product with hallucinogenic properties. Smokers get a buzz from the natural product in tobacco called nicotine; coffee drinkers get their buzz from the natural product found in coffee beans called caffeine.

Physical organic chemist

Physical organic chemists are interested in understanding the underlying principles that determine why atoms behave as they do. Physical organic chemists, in particular, study the underlying principles and behaviors of organic molecules. Some physical organic chemists are interested in modeling the behavior of chemical systems and understanding the properties and reactivities of molecules. Others study and predict how fast certain reactions will occur; this specialized area is called kinetics. Still others study the energies of molecules, and use equations to predict how much product a reaction will make at equilibrium; this area is called thermodynamics. Physical organic chemists are also interested in spectroscopy and photochemistry, both of which study the interactions of light with molecules. (Photosynthesis by plants is probably the most well-known example of light interacting with molecules in nature.)

Organometallic chemist

Organometallic chemists are interested in molecules that contain both metals and carbon. Such molecules are most often used as catalysts for chemical reactions. (Catalysts speed up reactions.) Carbon-carbon bonds are strong compared to carbon-metal bonds, so these carbon-metal bonds are much more easily made and more easily broken than carbon-carbon bonds. As such, they are useful for catalyzing chemical transformations of organic molecules. Many organometallic chemists concern themselves with making and optimizing organometallic catalysts for specific kinds of reactions.

Computational chemist

With the recent advances in the speed of computers, chemists have rushed to use computers to aid their own studies of atoms and molecules. Computational chemists model compounds (both inorganic and organic compounds) to predict many different properties of these compounds. For example, computational chemists are often interested in the three-dimensional structure of molecules and in the energies of molecules.

The models generated by computational chemists are getting more and more sophisticated as computers increase in speed and as physical chemists create better models. Many drugs are now designed on computers by computational chemists; this process is called in silico drug design, meaning that the drug is designed in the silicon-based computer. Typically, drugs work by blocking a receptor on an enzyme (see the explanation for Bioorganic chemist). In silico drug design focuses on modeling to see which compounds would best fit into the drug's target receptor. This allows for rational drug design, or the use of the brain to come up with the structure of a drug rather than simply using the "brute force methods" of the past, methods that involved testing thousands of randomly selected compounds and looking for biological activity.

Materials chemist

Materials chemists are interested in, well, materials. Plastics, polymers, coatings, paints, dyes — all of these are of interest to the materials chemist. Materials chemists often work with both organic and inorganic materials, but many of the compounds of interest to materials chemists are organic. Teflon is an organic polymeric material that keeps things from sticking to surfaces, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a polymer used to make pipes, and polyethylene is a plastic found in milk jugs and carpeting.

Materials chemists also design environmentally safe detergents that retain their cleaning power. Organic materials are also required for photolithography to make smaller, faster, and more reliable computer chips. All of these applications and millions of others are of interest to the materials chemist.

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