Challenges Changes--From Life Sciences to Patent Law

Several weeks ago, Science's Next Wave Germany invited young scientists to write their stories and share their experiences with other Next Wave readers. During this writing competition, we received many great ideas and inspiring contributions. Not all made it to the last round, but all of you who participated are certain to agree that our first writing competition was a great experience and--for some--a possible first step into a science writing career.

Today, we proudly present the winning contribution of the competition: "Challenging Changes--From Biochemistry to Patent Law," by Xenia Boergen of Berlin, Germany.

Our advice to those of you who missed the chance to participate in our competition: Keep your pencils sharpened! There will be a second competition in the future. Also, feel free to contact us with your story ideas at any time: Next Wave is happy to support and mentor young writing scientists! Now, here's Boergen's winning article ...

Changes Are Challenges Are Chances--From Life Sciences to Patent Law

Dear Next Wavers,Inspired by your writing competition, I felt it might be useful for other young scientists to read about my experiences with the transition from biochemistry to patent law. Some steps along the way were carefully planned. Others, of course, were not. Looking back, I'd say that knowing the direction I wanted to go helped me to make more of coincidences that came up along the way.--Xenia Boergen, Berlin

After finishing high school (Abitur) in Berlin, I went to the United Kingdom to study biochemistry at Queen Mary and Westfield College (University of London). I knew nothing about British universities then, so choosing the "right" one was tricky. In the end I decided that university names containing the words "royal," "King," or "imperial" sounded very old-fashioned, and coming from a republic--with no royal touch--they also sounded a bit "funny." "Queen" was acceptable though. The beginning was quite hard, because I had skipped my English lessons at school--the teacher had not been very good. After 4 weeks of German-English-dictionary-instead-of-lunch sessions, I could follow the lectures and practicals and there were no real complaints about my bad English. That is probably due to the immense patience shown by British society when foreigners try to be understood (ha-ha).

To cut a long story short: Studying biochemistry at QMW was very nice and very interesting. I passed all my B.Sc. exams and went on to Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine (also University of London) to do a master's in biotechnology. (Meanwhile I had gotten used to the names.) Studying at Imperial College was again excellent.

Via ERASMUS--a European student exchange program--I went to Orsay (Université de Paris) to do my master's project. The French food clearly influenced this choice--a criterion I would certainly not have applied to choose the United Kingdom. It was excellent getting into molecular biology, fungal genetics, the polymerase chain reaction, and gene sequencing in practice. So it turned out that the food had directed me to the right scientific place.

After Paris, I went home to Berlin to start a Ph.D. It turned out to be a problem that, at that time, my British degrees had to be acknowledged by the biochemistry department of the university in Berlin. And I had to learn a tough lesson: I had only studied for 4 years, whereas the average male German has to do his military service first, then studies much more slowly and consequently leaves university at the age of a young grandfather. The result was that I had to do an exam straight away. The professor failed me, supposedly because I didn't know his favorite research interests. For my next attempt, 2 weeks later, I asked his Ph.D. students about his favorite subjects and could then tell him how wonderful his research was. He loved it and surprisingly I passed. Clearly, British degrees should be considered as equivalent to German degrees according to a standard procedure.

The lab work--fungal genetics again--also did not seem very promising. After cloning the second time, I got the impression that the only intellectual challenge was how not to confuse the 20 DNA Miniprep Eppendorf tubes I was dealing with at the same time. The diversity of science had reduced itself to the minimal focus of my project, whereas the diversity of different moods of my boss seemed to keep increasing.

Somehow I knew that I had to change my field of interest; otherwise I would die a sudden brain death. It took a long time until I decided to study again.

I honestly thought of doing patent law, becoming a patent attorney, but in 1994 there wasn't really a market for patent attorneys in the biotechnology area--at least all the patent attorneys I spoke to were moaning about the bad situation. The consequence was that I could certainly work in their office, but virtually without any payment. I could hardly resist accepting that excellent offer, but finally declined when I found out that there were better no-payment jobs to do and one of them was studying law in Berlin.

Lawyers can also work in patent law, but they are not restricted to it. Studywise, the professors in Berlin did their best to entertain the students until the fifth semester. Then the lectures in the main subjects stopped, and we had to prepare for the law exams on our own or pay professionals ("Repetitor") to teach us. Most of the students chose the Repetitor, and so did I, because to do anything else is usually regarded as crazy or bound to fail the exams.

The last bits of my law studies became the most time-consuming phase of the whole training. After I studied for eight semesters, I got stuck in the exams procedure for 8 months, because the correction of the exams took 7 months and then it took another month of waiting for the oral exams. (Others had to wait another 3 months.) Then I had to wait seven more months to get into the second part of the law education, because there is usually a long waiting list, depending on the state. In Berlin, the procedure will take another 2 years and another law exam.

However, I used the time to get a job with a big German pharmaceutical company, where I've been working in the patent department, dealing mainly with biotechnology patents and communicating with patent offices and attorneys all over the world. And currently, I'm working for a German law firm in the medical and patent law section. In both positions I apply all of my scientific background to do my job. In fact, my work would be very difficult if not impossible without it.

Finally, learning never ends. And so I decided recently to do a Ph.D. in the area of science and law. So in the end I am dealing with the part of science that was always most interesting to me: the theoretical part and the law of science.

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