What is geochemistry?

Apr 25 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Career coaches say you should be able to describe what you do in 30 seconds or less.  I can definitely sum up my research in one sentence for non-technical folks (and no, I don’t just say “Frustrating—argh!”)


But I’ve found that I almost always have to answer another question:  “What is geochemistry?” I was asked this about 10,000 times during my first year in grad school (I know a lot of people outside of academia) and my one-sentence answer never seemed to satisfy people’s curiosity.  So I came up with a little blurb, a bit longer than 30 seconds, that explains my feelings about geochemistry.  Dr. Hand-Waver rolls her eyes when she hears me say it, but since she hasn’t offered a reasonable alternative, I keep using it anyway.  Here it is.  (And yes, it is a bit simplistic: this is what I tell non-technical people.)


What is geochemistry?


Well, you know what chemistry is, right?  Most chemists do work in the lab under closely controlled conditions.  They control the temperature, what goes into the flask, and stuff like that.  Geochemistry is the chemistry of the natural world.  It’s the chemistry that happens in water and rocks and the atmosphere, where there are about ten million different variables that you can’t control.


The usual response to this was a pause, then:  “So why would you want to study that?”  I never could quite convey to them how cool it was.  *sigh*

3 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I took a Geochemistry course at the University of Texas in @1956. I checked the catalog and it looks like it has morphed into several courses. My dictionary defines geochemistry as "the branch of chemistry dealing with the chemical composition of the earth's crust and the chemical reactions that occur there." That sounds about right.

  • ecologist says:

    heh heh... How about changing the order. Geochem is the study of the chemistry of the natural world, answers important questions about the water and ... Ordinary chemists work in the lab ... we get to do more exciting and much harder stuff on a boat/in a volcano/in a balloon/... etc.

    But, I like your definition, and sympathize with the difficulty. Imagine trying to define "mathematical ecology".

    • unlikelygrad says:

      I rarely bother to mention that what I really do is biogeochemistry (though I certainly hint at it in the one-sentence blurb about my research).