WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The biochemistry department at Purdue University prepares students for careers in molecular biology, medicine and other life sciences.

The department includes 120 students, making it one of the smaller programs in the College of Agriculture. This provides a small academic community within the context of a large university.

“We offer one major: biochemistry,” explained Joe Ogas, biochemistry professor. “Partly what makes us unique is we’re a very basic science. We’re a blend of biology and chemistry. We train our students to do a variety of different things.

“Everything we do relates to life. We have people working on biofuels, people working on plant regeneration, cancer — which is relevant to any animal. So we work on a lot basic things that are going to be of direct relevance to anyone.”

Students graduating from the program go to medical school, graduate school or go directly into industry.

The department has strong relations with companies, such as Dow AgroSciences. Students are encouraged to participate in at least one internship.

Ogas is glad that the department is located in the College of Agriculture.

“In land-grant institutions, all of the biochemistry departments are in the College of Agriculture because that’s where there was interest in biochemistry — related to agriculture,” he said. “It’s a natural outgrowth of where it was being done. We’re very happy to be here.”

All undergraduates in the program are required to do research, distinguishing the department from other programs across the country.

“You learn science by doing it, not by reading about it in a book,” Ogas said. “(Research) creates a story that’s useful in interview situations. No matter where they go, that research experience is a really strong selling point.”

Coursework focuses on a mix of lectures, labs and presentations.

Although the focus is heavily on science, students also take classes on communication, professional development and reading scientific information.

Professors, including Ogas, encourage students to participate in clubs and study abroad programs during their time in college.

Coursework is designed to accommodate students who want to spend a few weeks, or semester, abroad.

“We have a Biochemistry Club that’s really interested in outreach and promoting science as an activity for elementary school kids,” Ogas said.

“We also have a huge presence in Bug Bowl. We get several hundred students come to our exhibit. The club also brings in professionals from different career paths so they can learn what it’s like to have that career.”

Ogas described the atmosphere in the department as supportive and community-based.

If a student likes chemistry and biology, and wants a small community feeling with the opportunities of a big school, the biochemistry department may be the place for them, he said.

“If they are coming from a smaller school and worried about a big place, we do our best to make Purdue seem small,” he said.

“We’re a basic science department, but our goal is not that our students end up doing basic science. Our goal is they understand basic science and are successful at whatever they want to afterward. We’re happy to help them reach their goals.”