Crystallographers examine the molecular and atomic structure of crystal forms of materials, including metals, gases and biological materials such as proteins, nucleic acids and viruses. They use X-ray techniques among other methods (such as powder diffraction) to study the connection between the material’s atomic structure and its chemical and physical properties. This can lead to modifying the properties of the material to make it behave differently for the benefit of society.
A crystallographer can work in areas such as biology, chemistry, materials science, physics, archaeology and geology. For example, crystallography has previously contributed to science’s understanding of graphene and helped with the discovery of structures of biological molecules such as cholesterol, penicillin and insulin, as well as the structure of protein and DNA.
Crystallography can also be used to help:
- tackle the growing issue of bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics
- develop drugs to treat diseases
- produce new skin and healthcare products
- develop new materials for use in smart clothing
- create low-energy consumption television, computer and mobile phone screens
- find cures for plant and animal diseases such as swine flu
- discover ways to purify water and tackle global water sanitation challenges
A crystallographer’s day-to-day job might involve:
- completing lab research
- growing and studying crystal forms
- developing computer models of structures
- collecting and analysing data
- using the crystal form of a drug or new material to help support a company’s patent claim
- Research institutions
- Pharmaceutical and biochemical companies
- Forensic laboratories
Opportunities are advertised online, by careers services, by specialist recruitment agencies, in newspapers, in relevant scientific publications such as New Scientist and Science, by the European Crystallographic Association and in journals published by professional institutions and their respective websites.
- The recruitment process is likely to involve a technical interview. Read our article on technical interviews to find out what these involve and how you can tackle them.
It’s only possible to become a crystallographer with a degree. You’ll need a bachelors degree in a relevant scientific subject such as chemistry, materials science, physics or biology. The degree subject required will depend on the area you want to work in. Protein crystallography, for example, will require a biology degree.
Most jobs will also require you to have relevant postgraduate qualifications in fields such as structural biology. Some employers accept a masters degree but the majority will ask for a PhD. Read our article on scientific postgraduate study to explore your different options.
Relevant experience in a laboratory environment will also be beneficial, and most likely necessary.
- Problem solving
- Attention to detail
- Ability to judge and make decisions
- Maths skills
- Excellent communication skills