Biological and Chemical Engineering: A Guide

Jun 2024

8 Minute Read

Tagged as: Choosing a School/Program

A basic discussion of what biological and chemical engineers do, starting salary and types of careers


Engineers, in general, are people who do four things: design, build, analyze, and synthesize. Contrary to some of the common things people think of when they hear the word "engineer," today, engineers can be found in just about every scientific field.

In a past post, we talked about how you can prepare for an engineering program in high school. Today, we would like to introduce you to two fast-growing engineering fields: biological and chemical.

Biological Engineering

Bioengineers create new technologies by applying the life sciences to real-world problems. These technologies can be used in many fields to create medicines, structures, and energy, among others.

One rapidly growing field, biomedical engineering, focuses on the application of cellular and molecular biology to solve public health problems. For instance, data on how cells grow and regenerate has been used to pioneer artificial organ growth for people who require transplants to survive. Biomedical engineers have also developed more efficient forms of existing pharmaceuticals, like insulin, and pioneered the use of biological waste to treat potentially fatal diseases. Bioinformatics, which branched off of biomedical engineering, is an interdisciplinary field that combines computer science, molecular biology, chemistry, and statistics.

Sustainable energy is another growing body of research produced by biological engineers. Around the world, people are creating ways to recycle and repurpose human waste into fertilizer, electricity, and natural gas. Some people are also turning to bacteria and viruses as a potential source of energy.

Biomaterials scientists focus on turning animal and plant-based materials into building material, cloth, and even medical tools. They also work with microorganisms to develop environmentally sound ways to break down hazardous waste and help corals grow.

These are only a few areas. A few more, as MIT specifies, include:

  • Biophysics
  • Cell & Tissue Engineering
  • Microbial Systems
  • Macromolecular Biochemistry
  • Nanoscale Engineering
  • Pharmacology
  • Synthetic Biology
  • Toxicology1

Chemical engineering

Chemical engineers take raw materials and transform them into something more refined. They often work in close collaboration with chemists, mechanical engineers, and materials scientists to best manipulate the physical and chemical state of a raw product.

For instance, petroleum engineers help make plastics, which originate from raw petroleum products. They also oversee the chemicals involved in the reactions that transform raw crude oil into gasoline. Because these reactions are often hazardous for those who work around them, chemical engineers also work to ensure the safety of those involved.

Because petroleum fuels are not as in-demand as they used to be, many chemical engineers now work to reduce pollution and develop alternative forms of energy. Especially in the case of urban landfills, runoff from decomposing waste is creating many problems for the water supply. Landfill engineers study how this runoff interacts with the soil and analyze how to minimize the environmental impact.

Some chemical specialists, like biological engineers, also go into medical engineering. In this field, they create medicines, catalysts, anesthetics, and cleaning solutions used in hospitals. They also study how fluids interact with each other to develop non-invasive treatments for cancer and other ailments.

Education level and starting salary

According to, in 2016, the median entry-level salary for biomedical engineers in the US was just under 62,000 USD. Those who go into research and development services, component manufacturing, and technical consulting services often make upwards of 100,000 USD by mid-career.

The median starting salary for chemical engineers is just under 68,000 USD in the US. As of 2016, remediation and waste management specialists had the top mid-career salaries at around 143,000 USD.

For many, especially chemical engineers going into industry work, a bachelor’s degree is sufficient. Many process engineers have the equivalent of a master’s degree, but a Ph.D. is only required if one wants to go into a specialized research field or teaching position.

Luckily, according to Susan Fisher of Purdue University's engineering school, opportunities for chemical and biological engineers with graduate degrees are much more consistent than in other fields.2 To decide what is right for you, consider whether you enjoy theory and research or hands-on design work the most. Most American universities encourage engineering students to explore what they are interested in before deciding.

For more tips on applying to college and to explore our free résumé tool, download Occam's app, Wend, on the App Store!


  1. MIT's Biological Engineering department provides an excellent explanation this field, and how diverse the options are.
  2. Read more at Purdue University College of Engineering: "About."

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