What Type Of Chemistry Is Used In Pharmacy?

"I’m very interested in pharmaceutical science, but I haven’t decided yet what I want to do with it. I might want to actually become a pharmacist, but I don’t know. How much chemistry is involved in pharmacy? What about if I wanted to actually develop drugs, not just administer them? Is that a chemistry job? I really like chemistry, so I don’t want to give the impression I’m avoiding it—quite the opposite."

asked by Bill from Durango, CO

Making drugs and administering them are two very different careers. Pharmacists do need a knowledge of chemistry, but working in a pharmacy is nothing like working in a pharmaceutical lab developing new drugs. If you become a pharmacist, you will be using chemistry when you make IVs and develop concentrated solutions. You need to understand the effects that different drugs can have on the body, and the interactions they can cause in conjunction with other medications, herbs, and medical conditions.

The other field of work you are interested in involves an even greater knowledge of chemistry, because it puts you on the cutting-edge: developing new drugs. This field of chemistry is sometimes called pharmaceutical chemistry, but more often is referred to as medicinal chemistry.

If you work in this career, you will actually be involved in the development of brand new drugs. You also may find new ways to format existing drugs (for example, a gel cap alternative to a standard pill, or a liquid form of a solid medication).

Some medicinal chemists also work on upgrading the manufacturing process for pharmaceutical drugs. You may find yourself working with a large team, including other medicinal chemists, toxicologists, pharmacologists, and biologists. You may even work with environmental chemists to ensure that new manufacturing methods do not have an adverse impact on the environment.

Another related field of work is in developing guidelines for medications, and ensuring that those guidelines are met before new medications are approved. Chemists who work for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for reviewing applications for new drugs and determining whether those drugs are safe and meet appropriate guidelines for human use.

This is an important role, since chemists in this position watchdog the entire industry. It’s quality assurance on a vast scale. If chemists in these positions don’t do their jobs well, patients everywhere suffer. Performing successfully in this position enables you to protect millions of people.

There is really a whole spectrum of options relating to both of the fields you are interested in—chemistry and pharmaceutical science. Some of the other jobs that I mentioned only in passing may interest you as well, like toxicologist. Before you decide on your career path, I suggest you do some research on demand and job duties, and maybe even talk to a few practicing chemists to find out what a day in their lives is like.

That should help you to decide how you want to get involved in the development, manufacture, or distribution of pharmaceutical drugs.

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