When I was about halfway through my master’s degree, I began to think about what I would do in the “real world” and how I could capitalize on my chemistry degree. At the time, in my myopic view of the world, I had only one of two choices — work towards a doctoral degree and possibly become a professor, or work as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company. While I have a passion for chemistry, a life in the lab just wasn’t for me. It was at about this time that a fellow student in my lab mentioned that a good career could be found in law as a patent lawyer. That was the spark for me and the reason why I spent three years in law school. (I have to admit, though, I do still sometimes miss the smell of butyl acetate.)
As a patent lawyer in the chemistry field, it would be nearly impossible for me to competently advise businesses and inventors on their intellectual property needs without having a background to understand their technology. I couldn’t do the job I do without a thorough comprehension of chemistry. When drafting a patent application for example, I am often only provided with a manuscript for a journal publication which forms the basis of the application. I am simply expected to understand and translate the chemistry in the manuscript into “patentese.” Anyone who has ever read through a chemical patent would recognize the complexity of the chemistry that often forms its subject matter.
In the intellectual property world alone, there are a multitude of different careers for those who have a chemistry background. When a patent application is filed at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, a patent examiner reviews and analyzes the subject matter of the application to ensure it meets the requirements of the Patent Act. Again, without a strong understanding of chemistry, it would be nearly impossible to competently perform this job.
Patent litigators in the pharmaceutical field are kept busy by the battles between name-brand and generic pharmaceutical companies. At the heart of any patent litigation case is whether the patent at issue is valid, and therefore infringed, or invalid for not meeting the requirements of the Patent Act. The litigator’s role then is to prove their client’s case in front of a judge by putting forth arguments in law and examining and cross-examining expert witnesses. Being able to educate a judge on the complex subject matter in a patent is a helpful skill for a litigator.
Technology transfer officers often work at universities or other research institutions and try to find a home for the intellectual property generated there, by licensing or selling the technology. Tech transfer officers work with researchers to identify inventions and evaluate commercial value of the innovations. An understanding of the technology is crucial when negotiating contracts for the commercialization of the technology.
It’s been said that chemistry is the central science, and as a (former) chemist, I am biased to that line of thinking. Chemistry pervades so much of our everyday life that there is bound to be a career in any discipline for which you have a passion. As a student of chemistry, the world is truly your oyster.
-Mike Fenwick is a patent lawyer with Bereskin and Parr LLP in Toronto and holds a master’s degree in organic chemistry.