Not one to procrastinate, Charlie Johnson decided to fulfill the Rockhurst College Biochemistry Major’s undergraduate research requirement in the first semester of his freshman year. Discovering that he liked the scientific method and the problem-solving challenges posed by his laboratory work, Charlie quickly turned a one semester requirement into a much longer commitment. He also pursued Research Experiences for Undergraduate- (REU)-sponsored research opportunities in the laboratories of Brian Bachmann and Mike Stone at Vanderbilt during the summers following his sophomore and junior years. By the time he graduated from Rockhurst, he was sure that he no longer wanted to follow in his pediatrician mother’s footsteps, so he pursued graduate studies in Brent Znosko’s lab at St. Louis University’s Department of Chemistry, exploring the structural impact of intercalating agents on DNA and RNA.
As he neared the end of his graduate work, Charlie planned to pursue a career in academic research. The obvious next step was to obtain additional experience through a postdoctoral position, which he secured in Fred Guengerich’s lab at Vanderbilt. During this time, however, he began to question his intended career path. He realized that his only role models had been academic researchers and that he had not even considered alternatives. Furthermore, St. Louis University had provided no specific career development services at the time he was there. Thus, he found the BRET Office of Career Development-sponsored PhD Career Connections seminars that featured scientists from multiple different career paths to be particularly helpful. Through these, he became interested in intellectual property- and technology transfer-related careers.
To learn more about his new interest, Charlie became involved in the CTTC’s (Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization’s) TechVenture Challenge, a six-week competition between interdisciplinary teams of students through which they learn about commercialization strategies. Charlie worked on the organizing committee for the Challenge, helping to arrange seminars on topics such as intellectual property, finance, and how to present a pitch to potential investors. While visiting the Waller law firm in Nashville to arrange an event, he had an opportunity to speak with patent attorneys working in the field. There, he discovered that it might be possible to pursue a career in patent law without first becoming a lawyer.
Charlie learned that the United States Patent and Trademark Office administers its own bar exam through which one becomes a patent agent, a specialist in patent law. His scientific training provided Charlie with the formal education required to take that exam, though he would have to become thoroughly familiar with the Manual of Patent Practice and Procedure in order to pass. Additional critical advice came from Professor Sean Seymore of Vanderbilt School of Law. Professor Seymore also holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and a secondary appointment to the Department of Chemistry at Vanderbilt. Having worked himself as a patent lawyer, he informed Charlie that some law firms will hire scientists who are not patent agents to provide technical expertise in writing patent applications. Charlie applied for and secured such a position, and his firm then paid for him to take a course to help him prepare for the patent bar exam, which he subsequently passed.
Charlie now works for Polsinelli, LLP in St. Louis, MO as a patent agent, a job he loves. Although no longer working in the lab, he enthusiastically states, “I do more science now than I ever did as a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow.” His role is to turn discovery disclosures from the firm’s clients into patent applications that will not only be approved by the Patent Office, but will also withstand any potential future legal challenges. His areas of expertise include biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemical manufacturing, food and agriculture, and oil and gas, and his clients range from individual inventors through small start-up companies, to large, well established corporations. Clearly, he must be conversant in a formidable range of scientific topics and able to quickly familiarize himself with new fields of chemistry to handle each new application. He also must be able to put this knowledge into clear, concise writing that will meet the test of close legal scrutiny. Thus, he is constantly learning science he never knew before, and his job is constantly challenging and never dull.
Charlie benefitted from other aspects of the BRET ASPIRE program on the path to his chosen career. In particular, he found modules on networking, résumé preparation, and other tips for navigating the job application process to be particularly helpful. His advice to current graduate students and postdocs is “to always be on the lookout for opportunities to branch out, to try new things, to take your project in a different direction”, for the broader your range of experiences, the more prepared you will be to accept new and unexpected challenges in the future.