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Penny Gilbert, left, read biochemistry at the University of Oxford, followed by a DPhil (PhD) in molecular biology. She then joined law firm Bristows, where she worked for 20 years before co-founding Powell Gilbert – a London law firm specialising in patents and intellectual property – in 2007.
I studied biochemistry because I was fascinated by how the body works. Biochemistry encompasses a big and expanding area of science, and when you’re taught by people at the cutting edge of scientific research you can’t help being inspired.
Everyone dreams of discovering a cure for cancer. During my first degree I researched the process by which normal cells turn into cancer cells. I was making monoclonal antibodies, which was a new, exciting area of science, so I stayed on to do doctoral research.
I was keen to go on working in science, but research jobs in the UK were scarce. Then I spotted an ad from the law firm Bristows looking for scientists to qualify as intellectual property lawyers. It was a dream to continue using my science but move out of the lab and assist others who were making scientific innovations.
My job is mostly getting involved in fights over patents. I specialise in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, and usually we’re either enforcing a patent when another party is trying to make the same drug or product, or challenging one when someone has developed something new and a rival wants to block them. I enjoy the “chess game” of getting a case into court: finding expert witnesses, putting the scientific and legal arguments into comprehensible language, examining the other party’s evidence and trying to outwit their legal team.
Patents represent the latest in science and one of the joys of my job is that I’m always learning about new developments. I’ve worked on many different things – from the first diagnostic test for the hepatitis C virus to transgenic mice that are used to make human antibodies. The range of science and technologies is fascinating.
We’re at the cutting edge of the law. One of my cases involved two pharmaceuticals giants battling over a patent for a gene identified in the human genome project. It became the first ever patent case heard by the UK Supreme Court, and also went to the European Court of Justice.
I meet interesting and eminent people. I’ve engaged Nobel Prize-winners as expert witnesses, and in my first-ever case, James Watson [co-discoverer of the structure of DNA] was in court – although he was supporting the other side.
It has taken 20 years but I now think of myself as a lawyer, though I still use science every day. It’s incredibly useful in helping me understand technical areas and clients like the fact that I can speak their language.
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