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Law and Science Make a Winning Combination

By Sophie Bolick
July 2010

Sunman's career development story is an example of how valuable focused planning, extra effort, and active networking can be for finding the right non-bench position. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Postdoctoral Fellow Jeff Sunman, Ph.D., begins a new phase of his scientific career as a patent agent with the law firm Alston & Bird, LLP, in Raleigh, after spending five years with the Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis (LMC) Cell Adhesion Group as a recipient of an NIH Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) .

Passing the difficult Patent Bar

Sunman recently passed the U.S. patent bar, a complex exam that he credits as a key factor in landing his new position with the law firm. As a patent agent, Sunman will prosecute biotechnology patents for clients before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Many aspiring agents transition into the field of patent law as patent specialists, spending a year studying for the patent bar in order to become registered agents. However, Sunman spent many evenings and weekends during his postdoctoral training studying independently, completing a home study course offered by the Practising Law Institute and researching previously used exam questions.

To acquire the necessary level of familiarity with patent law, Sunman also spent the past few years attending seminars and symposia discussing the fields of intellectual property and biotechnology. He also attended relevant continuing legal education courses on-line during his lunch hours.

Gaining an edge with patent experience

In addition, Sunman gained valuable hands-on experience during the course of his fellowship when he and Steve Akiyama, Ph.D., head of the Cell Adhesion Group, decided to patent one of his scientific discoveries.

"Jeff very enthusiastically took the lead in coming up with precedents for the Employee Invention Report (EIR) we submitted to the NIEHS Technology Evaluation and Advisory Committee (TEAC), researching patent law to help me defend the EIR before the TEAC, and researching background information to help work out the patent claims with the attorney assigned to our case," explained Akiyama.

A productive research career at the bench

Not surprisingly, Sunman also made several major contributions to the study of proteases in the tumor microenvironment that regulate integrin-mediated processes such as cell migration. "First, he established a new model system to study the mechanism of P-selectin induced migration of cells out from an artificial tumor mass," said Akiyama. He also identified a novel mechanism for matrix metalloproteinase-9 in stimulating cell migration independent of its catalytic activity.

During the course of his postdoctoral fellowship, Sunman took advantage of every opportunity to present his research and developed communication skills. He was the recipient of a Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE). "He was a very good writer when he came to NIEHS," Akiyama said, "but he was able to hone his writing skills even more." Sunman submitted abstracts for NIEHS Science Day and the Annual Fellows Training Conference, presented posters at national meetings, and co-authored a couple of manuscripts.

Making additional contributions

As a member of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) Steering Committee, Sunman was an active member of the fellows' community. He served on numerous LMC committees and helped train other researchers within the Cell Adhesion Group. Akiyama calls him "the ultimate team player." He continues, "I am very happy Jeff has found a position that, I think, plays to his greatest strength."

(Sophie Bolick, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group)

Using the NIEHS Annual Career Fair to Network

Sunman was a member of the 2010 NIEHS Career Fair Planning Committee, responsible for organizing and moderating the panel discussion focused on patent law careers. "Networking was critical to getting the interview in the first place," stated Sunman when asked about his job search.

Sunman had met Alston & Bird partner Murray Spruill, J.D., Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, chair of the firm's Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Patent Group, at an off-site event some time ago. This positive interaction led to Spruill's invitation to participate in the Career Fair as a panelist. As a co-chair of this panel, Sunman was able to follow-up with Spruill, who turned out to be the hiring partner for the patent agent position posted a few months ago.

A discussion with other fellows interested in patent law at last year's NIEHS Career Fair led Sunman to create the LinkedIn "Patent Law Study and Transition Group." This group is a valuable resource for scientists and engineers preparing to transition to a career in patent law and currently has more than 130 members worldwide.

Sunman made new contacts by networking through this group and relied on several members for advice when it came time to interview for his new position. He credits these professional contacts with insight that "allowed me to ask better questions about the firm and the position."

See stories about NIEHS Biomedical Career Fairs in 2010 (, 2009 (, 2008 (, and 2007 ( and Sunman's FARE ( award.

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