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BY NANCY McGUIRE
Crystallography is the science that examines crystals, which can be found everywhere in ature—from salt to snowflakes to gem- stones. The properties and inner structures of crystals help scientists to examine the arrangement of atoms in the solid state, and this knowledge is
used in fields such as chemistry, physics, and biology.
What crystallographers do
Crystallographers use X-ray, neutron, and electron diffraction techniques to identify and characterize solid
materials. They commonly bring in information from
other analytical techniques, including X-ray fluorescence,
spectroscopic techniques, microscopic imaging, and computer modeling and visualization, to construct detailed
models of the atomic arrangements in solids. This provides
valuable information on a material’s chemical makeup,
polymorphic form, defects or disorder, and electronic
properties. It also sheds light on how solids perform under
temperature, pressure, and stress conditions.
Crystal-growing specialists use a variety of techniques
to produce crystalline forms of compounds for use in
research or manufacturing. They may be experts in working with hard-to-crystallize materials, or they may grow
crystals to exacting specifications for use in computer
chips, solar cells, optical components, or pharmaceutical
Crystallography has become an important tool for
studying structural biology. Proteins and other biological
materials (including viruses) may be crystallized to aid in
studying their structures and composition. Many important pharmaceuticals are administered in crystalline
form, and detailed descriptions of their crystal structures
provide evidence to verify claims in patents.
Instrument manufacturers hire crystallographers for
customer sales and support functions, including instrument repair and helping customers with special projects. Staff crystallographers at the national laboratories
develop and maintain leading-edge research instruments
and software capabilities. They also assist visiting users
in setting up and running experiments using specialized
Crystallography specialists may find opportunities working in
instrument and software development, customer support for
instrument manufacturing companies, user support at national
laboratories, or working in crystal-growing laboratories.
Historically, crystallographers have been associated with the
geosciences, metallurgy, and ceramics engineering. However, the
largest areas of demand today are in the medical and life sciences.
• EDUCATION NEEDED
Laboratory technicians usually require a bachelor’s degree in
chemistry, biology, geology, physics, or a related field.
Research positions usually require a Ph.D. and additional
experience in a field of specialization (pharmaceuticals, structural
biology, geosciences, materials science, physics, etc.). Research
associates may have master’s degrees and some experience.
Customer and user support positions may require a graduate
degree, depending on the nature and complexity of the service
provided. These positions often require practical experience
gained on the job, in addition to a strong academic foundation.
Jobs requiring undergraduate degrees range from $35,000 to
$85,000 per year (2010).
Jobs requiring graduate degrees range from $65,000 to $140,000
per year (2010).
• LICENSES AND TRAINING
Licenses are not generally required for crystallography.
Crystallographers must take safety training because their
laboratory instruments produce X-rays, neutrons, or high-energy
electrons. They wear one or more radiation dosimetry devices in
the laboratory and must submit these devices for periodic checks
to ensure that they have not been exposed to excessive amounts
of ionizing radiation.
Crystallographers working at government agencies or national
laboratories may be required to undergo background checks or
obtain security clearances on the basis of the nature of the work
and the security requirements of the laboratory.
This article is presented in
recognition of the International
Year of Crystallography and
efforts to increase public
awareness worldwide of the
science of crystallography.