Alumni Profiles Series: David Lu

 June 26, 2024

Dr. David Lu is a partner at K&L Gates, a global law firm providing legal services to clients in a variety of industries. Dr. Lu received his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and master’s degree in genetics from Fudan University. He then received his Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology from Duke University in 2004, while earning a certificate in bioinformatics and genome technology. He completed postdoctoral training at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. Later, he received his J.D. with distinction from Suffolk University Law School in 2013, with a concentration in intellectual property law. Now at K&L Gates, he helps biotech and pharmaceutical companies develop intellectual property strategies as a patent attorney.

Tell me about yourself.

I received graduate training at the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology of Duke University. I studied RNA biogenesis, both messenger RNA and microRNA, using tools such as viral vector systems. After my graduation from Duke, I moved to Boston and became a research fellow at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, where my research focused on the tumorigenesis of breast and ovarian cancer. Later, I joined an international law firm named K&L Gates and I am now a partner at the firm. My practice focuses on intellectual property work, mostly for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. I help my clients to develop global intellectual property strategies for a variety of products such as biologics, small molecules, and medical devices. Even though it's a legal career, I am still using my knowledge and the experience I gained from my graduate training at Duke University.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career as a patent attorney?

I was always interested in a lot of different things, such as writing, communication, and talking to other people about the advancement of technology. To be honest, I could totally imagine myself pursuing an academic career at the time. But on the other hand, I realized my main interest was really to know a lot of different scientific areas and to look at science from different perspectives. Looking at patent law, especially for biotech and pharmaceutical companies, is another way to look at science and one way to achieve that interest. I am still reading all kinds of scientific articles and keeping up to date with the scientific discoveries in my daily job—it is still in the same field but just from a different perspective. In addition, I am always very passionate about writing and communications, which are critical skills for a legal career. It feels like a really rewarding career to me.

I think pursuing careers outside of academia, such as a legal career, or a career in business or consulting, is equally important and positive as an academic career.

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What is your favorite part of your current job?

The most exciting thing I'm doing is to help a lot of biotech and pharmaceutical companies develop a strategy for strong intellectual property, especially in patent protection. This is especially important for a lot of startups whose most valuable asset is their intellectual property rights, since they are at the beginning of drug development and have not yet tested the drugs in humans or even animal models sometimes. Obtaining intellectual property rights is really hard for these startup companies, but it is extremely important for biotech and pharmaceutical companies in their long-term development: if you do not have intellectual property rights, there will not be motivations for investment, or driving forces for scientists to spend decades on the development of a critical drug that can potentially treat a life-threatening disorder. I am involved in developing strategies for those companies using both my scientific knowledge and legal experience. It is often very complicated, but I also feel that I am doing something tremendously important for these biotech and pharmaceutical companies. I think this process is very rewarding.

What’s the most surprising part of your job?

What surprises me is that everything I learned from my graduate training at Duke really helped in my current job. Most of our clients received Ph.D. training in biomedical sciences, such as molecular biology and genetics, as well. To communicate with them, you must have the knowledge and a solid understanding of the science. A strong educational experience at Duke really allows me to do well in my current job.

I would say the transition from academic to a legal career is not straightforward. Typically, there is a steep learning curve in the transition period, and, especially, there is a lot to learn at the beginning. But if you are interested in this field, and if you have the necessary skills, the learning curve feels like a rewarding experience for  your career development.

How did your graduate training at Duke prepare you for your current legal career?

I absolutely benefited from my training in molecular genetics. But I also benefited from diverse training experience outside of my thesis research—I also did a certificate in Bioinformatics and Genome Technology. That feels like a different experience, which is not the same as the molecular biology I studied. This experience really helped me later when I had to work on diverse technologies that are not restricted to RNA biology and molecular genetics, and it gives me the capacity to explore other areas as well. I am sure there are more certificate programs available for Ph.D. students nowadays, and I would encourage you to explore them.

I really enjoyed the environment at Duke that everywhere is connected, and you can easily walk from the medical campus to other departments. The Duke campus really allowed me to explore other departments and other topics that I was interested in. For instance, I remember on some summer nights, I used to walk to the Department of Computer Science for seminars. All those experiences helped me to look at things from a different perspective. Duke really provided me with a platform which enabled me to do that. If you are interested in other seminars or trainings, even if they are offered by, let’s say, the History Department or the Fuqua School of Business, you can always easily find more opportunities on Duke’s campus, from which you might also run into students from other departments and benefit from conversations with them.

What career development advice would you like to share with current Duke graduate students?

My advice to all the graduate students is to stay open minded. If you are interested in a career in academia, and you are excited about answering important and critical scientific questions, I think you should continue to pursue that as a rewarding career. But there are also a lot of other opportunities for Ph.D. students as well, such as careers in industry, legal and business areas, which are also exceedingly exciting and rewarding. You will also use your knowledge and training from graduate school to help you pursue those careers. Improving skills in communication and writing is important even if you do not want to pursue a legal career—they can be helpful in your future career, such as grant writing and presentations. Graduate training is a comprehensive experience. It’s not just about doing the experiments. It’s about all the other things as well.


Ran Ming
Ran Ming

Ph.D. student, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

Ran Ming is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology department. She works in Dr. Matt Scaglione’s laboratory, where she uses an array of biochemical and molecular biology techniques to study the disease mechanisms of a rare neurodegenerative disease. Prior to her graduate training at Duke University, she received her bachelor’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Michigan. She is curious about how to translate exciting scientific discoveries from the bench to beneficial products.