Alumni Profiles Series: Suparna Kanjilal

 May 29, 2024

Suparna Kanjilal graduated from Duke University in 2006 with a Ph.D. in biochemistry under the mentorship of Dr. Christian Raetz. After completing her postdoctoral training at Oregon Health & Science University, she discovered her passion for patent law. Starting as a technical specialist, she later completed the patent bar exam to become a patent agent. After more than ten years of working in a law firm, she is now an in-house patent agent at the agriculture company Syngenta. She enjoys sharing her experience in career exploration, encouraging students to explore various career development opportunities.

Tell me about yourself.

I completed my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in biochemistry in India. After my Ph.D. at Duke University, I did a postdoc at Oregon Health and Science University. My research topics moved up the evolutionary chain: I started my research career on bacterial lipopolysaccharide, then later studied yeast lipopolysaccharide trafficking. Around 2006 or 2007, funding in academia was quite difficult, and I had just had a child. Therefore, I reached out to a Duke biochemistry alumnus from my Ph.D. laboratory who was in the field of patent law. I was curious about patent law and contacted a few local law firms. That was how I got into working on patents.

What is your day-to-day like as a patent agent?

The job duties vary depending on whether you are in a law firm or you are an in-house patent agent. I was with a law firm until early 2020. In a law firm, the clients typically have already decided that they are going to file an invention and they have an invention disclosure written up. Therefore, the clients have a clear idea of the direction and oftentimes they have some preliminary data. A law firm patent agent may then be asked to perform a “freedom to operate” analysis. Such analysis involves assessing whether it is okay to use those sequences, and whether somebody already has a patent or a patent pending on those sequences. Additionally, the agent may perform a “patentability assessment” that examines whether the sequences are patentable and whether the scope of the claim is reasonable. A patent doesn’t mean I have the right to do something; it means I have the right to exclude you from doing something. You cannot do it unless you have permission, which in legal terms is licenses. A lot of the job duties of a law firm patent agent are understanding what has already been disclosed, what you can get a patent for, how useful will that be to that particular business, and writing that up.

For in-house patent agents [the kind of role I now have with Syngenta], we perform a lot of those assessments on our own with our scientists as they are coming up with experiments. We assess whether certain experiments can be performed due to our competitors having a patent pending. A lot of the work on a daily basis is understanding what scientists are doing, whether they are okay to do that, and ensuring that we are not going to get into legal trouble because we are infringing anyone’s patent. Our job also involves understanding whether these on-going projects are something we can get intellectual property on, and if so, in which jurisdictions, and helping the scientists understand what kind of experiments they need to do to bolster their claim.

Patent writing is a subtype of science communication: The patent needs to be written in a specific way, and it is technical writing. Once you submit the patent for application you cannot change anything, so you need to think about all the things you want to write.

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How was your transition from a postdoc to working in industry?

I went blind into intellectual property law without any previous experience. When I first applied for a position, I was overqualified for the science part and underqualified on the legal part. Therefore, I was first hired as a technical specialist. It turned out that I really like working on patent law because I like understanding the layers and nuances of a concept and drafting a story about it. Even though the primary clients were not biotech in the initial law firm that I worked at, I can understand scientific concepts easily with my Ph.D. and postdoc science training background. I can manage my work and myself really well because this is what I was trained to do. As long as you understand the concept you can apply it to anything.

The nice thing about being in patent law is that you are a jack of all trades. You do not get to know the projects in detail like in Ph.D., but at a higher level on a wide variety of topics. There are similarities between patent law and publishing a paper as a scientist. When you publish a paper, you need to have a story, and the story is bolstered by the figures. Patents are no different. You need to take your data and make a story. The organization, critical thinking, and writing skills gained from the scientific training similarly applies to the industry. 

What career advice do you have for students looking for opportunities in patent law?

The Research Triangle is rich with a lot of biotech companies and law firms. Reach out to them to see if there is someone you can connect with to do a short-term internship. There are a lot of alumni as attorneys or partners even in local law firms. Use that as a connection to get exposure.

What motivates you to share your career trajectory?

There are a lot of people who feel like they must go into a postdoc after their Ph.D. Some may feel burned out a few years later, or some are disillusioned. There are so many opportunities out there. Duke is such a rich environment with opportunities for you to try while you are in graduate school. I feel like it’s very important that someone doesn’t make the same mistake I did. Some people know that they want to stay in academia. They know it and they have that passion. But if you are not sure, it’s a great place and a great time to explore some opportunities.


Serena Wan headshot
Serena Wan

Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry

Serena Wan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biochemistry at Duke University. Her research utilizes multidisciplinary approaches to understand proteins that regulate the membrane lipid environment and how such regulation plays a role in pathophysiological conditions. She used to work in the biotechnology industry before joining Duke, and she is currently exploring different career options in the biomedical field. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, painting, and rock climbing.