Alumni Profiles Series: Jeannie Karl

 March 20, 2024

Dr. Jeannie Karl came to Duke to pursue her Ph.D. in cell biology following her undergraduate degree in biology at Seoul Women’s University in her native South Korea. After her doctoral studies, she received a law degree from Columbia University and began a legal career in patent litigation. Over the years, Dr. Karl’s legal career has cut across sectors from patent litigation to transactions, and she has served as outside counsel in a law firm (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP) as well as in-house counsel roles, first for Broadcom, a semiconductor and software company, then in 2016, Dr. Karl joined Genentech’s pharma partnering transactions legal group. Since then, she has both risen in leadership and transitioned from legal roles into business roles. Currently, Dr. Karl leads negotiations in complex partnership deals at Genentech as a Senior Director in the Pharma Partnering Transactions group.

How did you transition from graduate research in cell biology to a legal career?

When I first came to Duke, I did not have a career plan. I knew that I loved biology and I wanted to do it at an excellent institution, and that led me to my Ph.D. studies at Duke. About three or four years in, I realized that I needed to decide what I would do after my PhD. I had never wanted to be a professor, though it is considered to be the highest achievement of academic research. I started my Ph.D. wanting to do basic science research in a laboratory. However, I soon realized that, although basic science research was fun and that I wanted to complete my degree, I didn’t want to do bench science for the remainder of my life. I started exploring my options and discovered that I wanted to be closer to the day-to-day impact of whatever I decided to do, and to the community around me. I also realized that the more you are successful in academic research, the more you need to get involved in the business of remaining successful in academia, which means writing grants, getting money, and giving talks, which were less exciting for me.

I decided to investigate other careers outside academia such as biotech analyst, management consulting, or industry scientist roles, as well as being a life sciences attorney. I chose to go to law school because the analytical mindset involved and perceived stability of the profession intrigued me. At first, I thought I would become a patent prosecutor, but ended up enjoying the investigative and storybuilding aspects of patent litigation and thus began my career as a patent litigator. Life as a patent litigator was grueling, almost as much as being a graduate student, and ultimately I decided that working in New York City and working as a law firm patent litigator was incompatible with my family life and life goals as a whole.

Go to conferences to seek out new people and companies of interest, connect with other students, and seek out things that are not just things you believe people expect you to do, but things that actually make you happy.

Then, to bring my journey full circle, during graduate school, I attended a developmental biology conference at Stanford and fell in love with the Bay Area, and I started dreaming about living there someday. And of course, Genentech, being the ultimate biotech success story, I started dreaming about life as an in-house attorney at Genentech. We moved our family to Redwood City, and in 2016, I finally achieved my dream of working for Genentech as a transactional attorney doing licensing deals for assets, therapies, and platforms. The more I did this, the more I loved the business of science. So, in 2022, I switched over to a business role.  I have now come around to doing most of the things I had thought about doing while in graduate school.

As graduate students, we often feel like when we make a career choice, we are making that choice forever, but you seem to have experienced most of the careers you considered in graduate school.

I believe that it is important to have a broad perspective and a long outlook. When I left academia, while I was immensely proud of my Ph.D., I lamented that I had spent seven years doing something that I never really needed or will use. Now, it all comes together, and everything I did then has all been helpful for me. I still use my graduate school training for what I do right now, and it is not necessarily the technical skills as you might imagine. It’s those important transferable skills, like rigorous and analytical thinking, asking questions, doing research, even putting together presentations and clear writing…these are things that I first learned at Duke, and those have been the foundation for other skills and learnings I have built up throughout my career. I am forever grateful to Duke for that.

How would you say your graduate school training has helped you in your career trajectory?

To be successful in your career, a lot of the skills needed are applicable across many fields. This includes attributes such as curiosity and open-mindedness. Also, you’re always going to be your own worst critic because you have high expectations of yourself, but you also have to give yourself a break, adopt a broad perspective, and understand that you will always have room for growth and change. With this, every challenge that you face becomes an opportunity, and whatever steps you take, whatever decisions you make, you should realize that it is not the end of the road. If it was a misstep, find another path, and the misstep will still be a learning experience. If you take good care of your mind and body, and you understand that every day, you will strive to be successful, even failures could become successes.

How have you been able to find a balance between work responsibilities and your life?

Here is how I look at it: it is not about achieving perfect balance, but about setting yourself up for success in the continuous striving for balance. For me, I wanted to have a husband and kids, and both my partner and I wanted to have successful careers. It was important for me to set myself up for success in achieving these goals, firstly, by finding the right partner who shared similar goals with me. Also, part of setting yourself up for success in striving for balance is understanding that unpredictability is the one predictable part of life. Thus, when something happens, say someone is sick, you should just roll with the punches, be creative, and support each other while juggling many balls. When one ball falls, just keep juggling the rest of the balls, and your partner can hopefully pick some falling balls up.

Do you think that industry expectations can be flexible enough to accommodate personal needs or extra responsibilities that arise in your life?

I think that we all want to have successful careers and lives and to achieve these, it is essential that you find the right people in your life. In addition to finding the right partner for your life goals, you also need to find the right work colleagues, mentors and bosses. It is harder to change an existing work culture, so my advice is to look for workplaces where the existing culture is supportive of its people, both at work and in their personal lives, where they expect you to be competent and professional but also respect your personal and family needs. Things that come up in life, such as a child being sick, should not be second-guessed, and a good working environment is one in which the manager supports those needs and makes room for you to take care of those needs and where colleagues step in to support the work in your absence. One benefit of being highly skilled professionals, which you all are headed in the direction of achieving, is that we don’t need to always be present in a specific place at a fixed time to carry out our jobs (of course, there are exceptions, like if you are a doctor).

What advice would you offer current graduate students?

For this advice, I am assuming that the student is open to exploring research paths outside of professorship. Asking questions and speaking to a broad range of people would be a great initial step to take. Go to conferences to seek out new people and companies of interest, connect with other students, and seek out things that are not just things you believe people expect you to do, but things that actually make you happy. I would also suggest that you actively use LinkedIn to try to connect with relevant people. Lastly, I think, within the life sciences sector, following life science newsletters or blogs for regular information about notable events in the industry would be a good thing to do.

Can you offer tips for establishing professional relationships with potential employers and other leaders in your field?

One method is to search for jobs of interest on websites like Indeed and LinkedIn, and, even when you do not fully meet the job requirements, apply for the jobs, and get an interview. Even if you don’t get the job, the connections made from such interactions could be lifelong and be helpful later in life. You also learn what companies are looking for and build up skills in those areas, which prepares you to land that next interview and get the job!



Arinze Okafor
Arinze Okafor

Ph.D. student, Cell Biology

Arinze Okafor is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Cell Biology Department at Duke School of Medicine. Working in the Diao lab, Arinze applies genomic and bioinformatics tools to study stem cell biology, gene regulation, and cancer biology, and he is also working to design a new type of genomic technology. Besides research, Arinze is also involved in choral music as well as student leadership as president of the Duke African Graduate and Professional Student Association. In his free time, Arinze loves to play tennis and spend time with his family.