Many hear the word chemistry and instantly visualise people working in a lab, but it might surprise you to discover just how diverse the opportunities are when it comes to chemistry careers. One such example is the role of patent attorney, helping to protect new inventions and the rights of those who create them.
Recently she has used her membership with the RSC to help build the firm’s corporate social responsibility and diversity and equality activities.
So what does a job that mixes law and chemistry really involve?
Catherine explains, “I’m the person that people come to and say, ‘Hey I’ve got this great invention, it does this and this, can you help me get protection for my intellectual property?’
Although I work with some inventions where the science is very complex and challenging, I’m not the one actually doing the research and development. Yet without my background in chemistry, I couldn’t do this job. It is essential for understanding the complexity of some of the products I work with.
“Most chemical patent attorneys see a large cross section of chemistry, it’s a very broad church. A lot of us also do a bit of mechanical work and engineering as well.
Just as an example, I have been working with a specialist biotech company called FabRx on the 3D printing of pharmaceuticals, which has been very interesting and rewarding. We’re talking about mass access tailor-made medicines that we don’t really have at the moment.
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Catherine has loved chemistry since seeing her teachers perform exciting experiments in the classroom. Her PhD and postdoc were focused on solid state chemistry, intercalated materials and hydrogen storage. It was during her PhD at the University of London in 1999 that she first became aware of the RSC and signed up.
Catherine went on to do a postdoc, as she felt the project was in a field that was of global importance – materials for hydrogen storage for transport applications – but knew that research wasn’t what she wanted to do forever.
“Once you’ve spent a few years researching a project you end up seeing a lot of things that don’t work. I wanted to see more things that did work! In research you tend to get deeper and deeper and narrower and narrower, but I like all the different facets to chemistry. I wanted to move into something where I would have more variety.
“So I thought, I’ve done my bit for research, it’s time to flip things around and become a patent attorney. That way I’ll get to help other people who are doing good research to get something out of it, to enable people to actually use the technology they’re developing.”
Since moving into an industry role, as well as working with hundreds of clients, Catherine has focused her attention on improving equality and diversity in her field. She has taken on the role of equality, diversity and inclusion officer at Beck Greener and uses the RSC as inspiration to inform the firm’s approach.
Issues around increasing diversity and improving accessibility in STEM subjects are incredibly important to me. I’ve been to two or three of the RSC diversity and equality events because I’m interested in finding out more about what they’re doing in that space, as a large, well-respected organisation. I am always on the lookout for things that might apply in our firm and across the IP profession.
“I went to the launch of the diversity report the RSC did a couple of years ago. It’s great to see how the RSC is going about benchmarking in a very scientific way and what it wants to do about making chemistry less white/male dominated. I also love how they’re collaborating with other societies to try to push that on, to bring everything together with a cohesive approach. I came away thinking we all need to be looking carefully at where we are now so we can show tangible improvements.”
Using her membership to share and source ideas, Catherine has witnessed her relationship with the RSC change over the years.
“The way I interact with the RSC since I’ve moved into an industry role isn’t more or less, it’s just different. What I have enjoyed more recently about the RSC is the broader perspective it gives me in terms of keeping up with what's happening in the chemical industries through its events and publications. I like to feel like I’m still a chemist and I’m still part of that community. Plus, they are tackling issues that are important to me.”
Catherine has also been helping to develop the firm’s award-winning outreach programme, ‘STEM: Branching Out’, which gives attorneys the opportunity to become STEM ambassadors and go out to local schools and events to deliver fun, interactive workshops.
“We are using what we do to show secondary school students that science subjects can give you a huge amount of versatility with what you can do for a career. You don’t have to be in a lab! As a chemist you can do anything you want at all, it’s one of those subjects that doesn’t close any doors, in fact every door is still open to you.”