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Pharmacological Chemist


Modern medicines and therapies such as antibiotics, decongestants, cough syrup, insulin, and antidepressants are the products of pharmacological chemistry. Sometimes called pharmaceutical chemists, pharmacological chemists design, produce and deliver drugs and study disease therapy to create chemical solutions to relieve, combat and cure illness. They also study the effects of drugs, gases, dusts and other materials on tissue and physiological processes of animals and human beings. Creating pharmaceuticals requires a thorough understanding of biochemistry and organic chemistry.

Pharmaceutical chemists may synthesize new drugs, or modify older drugs so that they have improved therapeutic value, are less toxic, or have improved stability. The need to demonstrate safety, bioavailability and effectiveness of all new drugs, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration, places unique quality control requirements on all aspects of the drug manufacturing and distribution process. To meet these requirements, pharmaceutical chemists also develop improved analytical techniques for monitoring the levels of drugs in the body and to ascertain the safety and potency of the drugs on the pharmacy shelf.

In disease therapy, pharmacological chemists study normal and pathologic biological processes at the level of the molecules involved. The "in vivo" and "in vitro" properties of drugs are governed by different principles and as all chemists know, different molecules and chemicals have various reactions when they join. When a molecule binds to another, it will have an effect -- either positive or negative -- in terms of health. In the case of designing medication, the aim is obviously to have a positive reaction. Therefore, pharmacological chemists try to design drug molecules that bind selectively to the target molecule, but not to others. This method of drug design is intended to have the least amount of side effects possible. Pharmacological chemists must also test the molecule against many others (other than the targeted molecule) to find out the negative side effects.

Pharmacological chemists usually work in one of two areas of work: product development and research or an administration position. Those working for industrial companies can become directly involved in product development research, applying their scientific background to the solution of practical, challenging problems. Some may also select positions oriented more toward basic research or at the drug discovery and development stage. Those who choose to take the administrative career path, will be more involved in the distribution of drugs.

Finally, in compliance with government standards, pharmacological chemists work to standardize procedures for the manufacture of drugs and medicinal compounds. Those who are employed by the government will help set safety standards and may even work as government watchdogs for pharmaceutical companies.
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  Interests and Skills  
What does it take to become a pharmacological chemist? Pharmacological chemists need good communication skills including reading and writing, and an affinity for mathematics, science and problem solving. They should be able to work independently as well as with a team, and have incredible patience and meticulousness. Pharmacological chemists should also enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to problems, working with instruments at tasks requiring precision, and directing the work of others. They should also be persistent because experiments will not always yield the desired results.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Design drugs by testing out various molecule reactions
  • Use chemistry to understand why chemical compounds behave the way they do
  • Isolate, purify, characterize and analyze the properties of chemical substances used in pharmaceutical products
  • Study positive and negative side effects of pharmacological experiments
  • Alter and improve already existing drugs to increase therapeutic value
  • Study drug development, including the chemistry of drug receptor interactions and the chemistry of drug metabolism
  • Meet with pharmaceutical company management and officials to discuss product development
  • Help set government health, medication and safety standards
  • Guide research by eliminating non-feasible options and highlighting those with the best chance of success
  • Write reports on experiments and publish articles in scientific journals
  • May lecture and supervise students
  • Pharmacological chemists often work in research and development teams. They work variable hours in offices, laboratories and classrooms. and may be required to work longer hours. Those employed in research facilities, industrial plants or hospitals may be required to work shifts. Since they use complex, high-tech scientific equipment to mix chemicals and test their effects, they must use safety precautions when conducting experiments.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Pharmacological chemists teach at colleges and high schools and work for drug and safety departments in the government. They are also employed by pharmaceutical companies, manufacturing companies, research laboratories, hospitals, the chemical industries, private consulting companies and other related organizations. They may specialize within their fields, for example focusing the majority of their research on a particular disease or medication.

  Long Term Career Potential  
As the nature of industrial pharmaceutical research becomes more sophisticated, those researchers with strong scientific backgrounds compete more effectively for management positions. The increasing number of trained pharmaceutical chemists now entering the upper levels of management will have an increasingly significant impact on the direction of health related research programs in the future. The demand for outstanding researchers in pharmaceutics will, therefore, continue to grow.

Graduates who are interested in providing guidance to future researchers, while directing their own research programs, may opt for careers in academia. Pharmaceutical chemistry programs in academic institutions are expanding and are constantly seeking able teaching and research faculty.

  Educational Paths  
Most pharmacological chemists begin their postsecondary education by taking a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, with a specialization in pharmacology. Those who wish to specialize or work in research usually continue their pharmacological chemistry education to the master's or PhD level. A doctoral degree is often required for leading research projects and teaching positions at the postsecondary level. Students planning careers as pharmacological chemists should take courses in science, mathematics and pharmacology, and should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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At Widener University, we proudly cultivate challenging and culturally diverse learning environments where academics, leadership, and service come first. Founded in 1821 in Chester, Pennsylvania, Widener is nationally recognized for our commitment to civic engagement, service, and social responsibility. It is our goal to develop true leaders who inspire positive change throughout our community.

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