Scientific Breakthrough

Why Siew Yen Chong gave up the lab for the law

Published in 2018 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

Siew Yen Chong says the idea took root in the lush rainforests of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, where her parents often took her as a child. 

“We stayed at this little mission bungalow and would take walks out in the rainforest paths. I really liked being out there in the green and fresh air.” So much so that when asked early in elementary school about career paths, she said, “I want to be a biologist in the rainforest.”

The science part of the equation worked out; the rainforest not so much. 

Chong had no previously blazed trail to her goal—neither parent had a technical degree—but she was driven. Excelling in high school science classes, she was awarded scholarships to schools in both Malaysia and the U.S., and wound up attending Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, where she majored in biology and biochemistry. Five years later, she earned a Ph.D. in pathology and immunology. A common next step would be postdoctoral study, but Chong wanted to see more immediate, tangible effects from her research.

“Straight out of school I got to join a team of scientists on an HIV vaccine collaboration between the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies,” she says of her work at Wyeth’s research facility in Pearl River, New York. Chong was involved in creating assays and methodologies to determine whether and how potential DNA and protein vaccines worked. “It was a really exciting project and I got to work with scientists who were passionate about making a difference,” Chong says.

When Wyeth decided not to move forward with the vaccine, she began mulling what to do with her career. This process dovetailed with dealing with the patent attorneys at Wyeth. Her interest piqued by their work and its importance, she was soon working on a J.D. at Rutgers. It was scientist by day, law student by night. “I had to be very disciplined,” she says. She notes that most of her fellow students had day jobs and prior careers. “A lot of people who go to school at night had the same issues I had.”

Near the end of law school, she was offered a summer associateship at Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto, a boutique patent firm, and hoped to take a sabbatical from Wyeth to complete it, but the demands of the scientific schedule didn’t allow for it. “I had to make a choice whether to quit my job to do my summer associateship,” she says. She went with the law. 

During that first summer, Chong worked on HIV drug litigation, where her experience as an HIV researcher proved invaluable. “It was easy for me to go back and look at the scientific articles and dig in,” she says. 

Indeed, her scientific background proved a boon in helping her transition to intellectual property law. “There were so many other things I had to learn,” she says, “but technically I felt really comfortable.” 

Chong spent three years at Fitzpatrick before taking her current position as an associate at Steptoe & Johnson, where she focuses on patent litigation, prosecution and freedom-to-operate analysis. In this capacity, she not only communicates highly technical information to patent office judges and examiners (who often have scientific backgrounds of their own) but also has to distill complex science to lay jurors and judges without losing the crux of the issue. “We try to build a bridge between the scientist and the jury,” she says. 

For Chong, science and the law are natural partners. “I use my scientific training and knowledge almost on a daily basis. … I consider practicing patent law as an extension of my scientific training.” 

Both science and the law, she adds, are about “communicating concepts in a relatable manner.”

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