Why Study Chemistry?


  • What is chemistry?

    Everything you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch involves chemistry and chemicals (matter). Hearing, seeing, tasting, and touching all involve an intricate series of chemical reactions and interactions in your body. With such an enormous range of topics, it is essential to know about chemistry at some level in order to understand the world around us.

    In more formal terms chemistry is the study of matter and the changes it can undergo. Chemists sometimes refer to matter as ‘stuff’, and indeed so it is. Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space. Which is to say, anything you can touch or hold. Common usage might have us believe that ‘chemicals’ are just those substances in laboratories or something that is not a natural substance. Far from it, chemists believe that everything is made of chemicals. Although there are countless types of matter all around us, this complexity is composed of various combinations of some 100 chemical elements. Nevertheless, all matter is composed of various combinations of these basic elements. The wonder of chemistry is that when these basic particles are combined, they make something new and unique. Consider the element sodium. It is a soft, silvery metal. It reacts violently with water, giving off hydrogen gas and enough heat to make the hydrogen explode.  Also consider chlorine, a green gas when at room temperature. It is very caustic and choking, and is nasty enough that it was used as a horrible chemical gas weapon in the last century. So what kind of horrible mess is produced when sodium and chlorine are combined? Nothing more than sodium chloride, common table salt. Table salt does not explode in water or choke us; rather, it is a common additive for foods we eat everyday.

    And so it is with chemistry. Understanding the basic properties of matter and learning how to predict and explain how they change when they react to form new substances is what chemistry and chemists are all about. Chemistry is not limited to beakers and laboratories. It is all around us, and the better we know chemistry, the better we know our world. 

    Adapted from “What is Chemistry,” American Chemical Society (2009) 

  • What are the different areas of chemistry?

    Analytical Chemistry

    Analytical Chemistry, one of the major branches of modern chemistry, is subdivided into two main areas, qualitative and quantitative analysis. The former involves the determination of unknown constituents of a sample, and the latter concerns the determination of the relative amounts of such constituents.


    Biochemistry is a field of science which emphasizes study of the molecular level of life. The reactions, chemical substances and processes that occur in plants, animals, and microorganisms are all targets for study. Specifically, biochemistry involves the quantitative determination and structural analysis of the organic compounds that comprise the basic constituents of cells (proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids) and of those that play a key role in chemical reactions vital to life (nucleic acids, vitamins, and hormones). Biochemistry entails the study of all the complexly interrelated chemical changes that occur within the cell—e.g., those relating to protein synthesis, the conversion of food to energy, and the transmission of hereditary characteristics. Both the cell's degradation of substances that release energy and its buildup of complex molecules that store energy or act as substrates or catalysts for biological chemical reactions are studied in detail by biochemists. Biochemists also study the regulatory mechanisms within the body that govern these and other processes.

    Biochemistry lies in the border area between the biological and physical sciences. Accordingly, it makes use of many of the techniques common to physiology and those integral to analytical, organic, and physical chemistry. The field of biochemistry has become so large that many subspecialities are recognized such as proteomics, bioinformatics and molecular biology. Taken as a whole, modern biochemistry has outgrown its earlier status of an applied science and has acquired a place among the pure, or theoretical, sciences.

    Chemical Education

    About 30% of students who graduate with a chemistry degree work as chemistry educators according to the American Chemical Society. This includes teachers/instructors at several levels - middle school, high school, community colleges and universities. For more information about chemical education, click here.

    Environmental Chemistry

    Environmental chemistry applies the diverse methods of chemical analysis to study the composition of water, soil, and atmosphere. Particular attention is paid to the movement and fate of pollutants in our biosphere. The speed and energy changes associated with environmental chemical processes in waters and soils are of interest. Environmental chemists look for ways to remediate ("fix") existing environmental problems, or to avoid creation of new pollution problems.

    General Chemistry

    General Chemistry provides students with exposure to the fundamental principles that provide the foundation for upper-level coursework. Topics include atomic/electronic structure, bonding, chemical reactions, stoichiometry, thermodynamics, equilibrium, and kinetics.

    Inorganic Chemistry

    Inorganic chemistry is the study of the structure, properties, and reactions of the chemical elements and their compounds, not including those classified as organic compounds (covalent carbon-based compounds). This branch of chemistry is responsible for creating and characterizing a wide array of novel and useful substances, such as superconductors, semiconductors, chelating agents, chemotherapeutic agents, and a host of others.

    Nuclear Chemistry and Radiochemistry

    The course begins with an advanced treatment of nuclear structure, nuclear reactions, and radioactive decay processes. Introductions to topics in the closely allied fields of nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry will include the interaction of radiation with matter, radiation detection and measurement, nuclear activation analysis, isotope effects, radiation chemistry, hot-atom chemistry, nuclear age-dating methods, radiochemical separations, nuclear reactors, and nuclear power.

    Isotopes are atoms of the same element that vary in the number of neutrons they contain. Radiochemistry is the chemical study of radioactive elements, both natural and artificial, and their use in the study of chemical processes. This includes the study of (i) the behavior of radioactive isotopes (radionuclides) (ii) chemical effects of high-energy radiation (iii) nuclear analytical methods (iv) the application of radionuclides in areas outside of chemistry such as medicine (v) the physics and chemistry of the radionuclides and (vi) radiotracer techniques.

    For example, the heaviest known element has a nucleus with 118 protons. It finalizes the seventh period of the periodic table of elements. Element 118 was first created by a team of Russian and American scientists at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia in 2002. By bombarding a target that included the isotope californium-249 with an intense beam of calcium-48, these scientists created just three atoms containing 176 neutrons, labeled ununoctium-294 (118 protons + 176 neutrons = ununoctium-294). The High Flux Isotope Reactor and Radiochemical Engineering Development Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory prepared the actinide targets and shipped them to Dubna for experiments producing the latest six elements (Z = 113-118). In 2016, ununoctium was officially named oganesson after the team leader Yuri Oganessian. Tennessine (Ts) was the most recently discovered element (Z = 117), produced by bombardment of a berkelium-249 target with a calcium-48 beam, and named for the significant efforts of ORNL, UT Knoxville and Vanderbilt scientists and engineers in the JINR collaboration.

    Because heavy nuclei contain so many particles, the atoms are unstable and split into smaller, so-called daughter products. As the atom breaks apart, energy is released in the form of electromagnetic waves and electrically charged particles. This energy is known as radiation. Data from the production of heavy transactinide elements (Z = 104-118) have indicated a considerable increase in the stability of the heaviest nuclei, confirming predictions and theoretical models suggesting the existence of what is known as the “island of stability”, first proposed by Glenn T. Seaborg in the 1960’s. Additionally, the most stable nuclides in this series have provided an opportunity to explore the chemistry of the elements, which in some cases have demonstrated significant departures from periodic trends.

    Organic Chemistry

    Organic Chemistry is the branch of chemistry in which covalent carbon compounds and their reactions are studied. A wide variety of classes of substances such as drugs, vitamins, plastics, natural and synthetic fibers, as well as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats consist of organic molecules. Organic chemists determine the structures of organic molecules, study their various reactions, and develop procedures for the synthesis of organic compounds.

    Organic chemistry has had a profound effect on life in the 20th century: It has improved natural materials and it has synthesized natural and artificial materials that have, in turn, improved health, increased comfort, and added to the convenience of nearly every product manufactured today.

    Physical Chemistry

    Physical chemistry is the branch of chemistry that applies the laws of physics to elucidate the properties of chemical substances. It provides the theoretical foundation for understanding all chemical phenomena. Physical chemistry is concerned with the physical properties of substances, such as vapor pressure, surface tension, viscosity, refractive index, density, and atomic structure. It provides an understanding of thermal properties, equilibria, rates of reactions, and mechanisms of reactions. In its more theoretical aspects, physical chemistry attempts to explain spectral properties of substances in terms of fundamental quantum theory, the interaction of energy with matter, and the nature of chemical bonding. 

Why study chemistry?

Chemistry is the central science, and a background in chemistry can lead to a multitude of careers. Many careers are things you may not have thought of before now. For example, who do you think makes toothpaste a paste? Who makes slow-release fertilizer to be slow release? A formulations chemist, that's who! Chemists are at the center of just about everything - and that's why chemistry is called the central science. A degree in chemistry also prepares you for a large number of graduate programs in the chemical or closely-related sciences. Most students at Tennessee Tech earning degrees in chemistry typically go on to MS or PhD graduate programs or professional schools. However, you don't have to go to graduate school to begin a career as a chemist. The American Chemical Society has many excellent articles that demonstrate the breadth of careers undertaken by chemists and the impacts they have on humanity. Explore this website and see for yourself how many awesome possibilities a background in chemistry may have for you.

What careers can I have in chemistry?

A chemistry degree can lead to a career in many different fields. Here are just a few examples of types of industries which hire chemistry majors: 

  • agrochemicals
  • metallurgical
  • petrochemicals
  • pharmaceuticals
  • plastics and polymers
  • toiletries and cosmetics

A few examples of jobs for chemistry majors are:

  • Middle school/High school teacher
  • Pharmacologist
  • Nanotechnologist
  • Biotechnologist
  • Research scientist
  • Environmental consultant
  • Forensic scientist
  • Lab technician
  • Quality control
  • Professor of chemistry
  • Agricultural and Food Science Technician

For more examples, please visit the American Chemical Society website.

Why study chemistry at Tennessee Tech?

Tennessee Tech Chemistry involves more undergraduates in research than any other school in Tennessee – plus, more than most in the Southeastern United States. You can join a research lab as early as your Freshman year. It’s hard to beat experience, and experience is what you’ll get at Tennessee Tech. In addition, students conducting research typically present the results of their research at local, regional and national meetings each year. We generally have one of the largest groups attending the National American Chemical Society Meeting each year as well. For many years in a row now, our ACS Student Member Chapter has been ranked in the top 10% nationally, being recognized at the “Outstanding” level. With twenty-three faculty in the department, students have a wide array of research to select from, and we start each fall semester with a Research Mini-Symposia where you can watch 10-minute presentations by faculty in each of these research areas. This is their invitation to you to get involved.

After students complete general chemistry, our class sizes are well suited for the personal experience you expect in college (15-35 students per class), and you have the opportunity here to get to know your professors well.

For those interested in the interface between chemistry and biology (biochemistry and molecular biology), we have five faculty in that area as well as an active American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Chapter Club. Students travel to that national meeting each year, as well.



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