Karen Hastings graduated from the University of Maine in 1981 with a degree in chemical engineering and received a law degree from George Mason University in 1988. Since 2007, she has served as an Administrative Patent Judge with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Of all the engineering disciplines, why chemical engineering?
I participated in the University of Maine College of Engineering’s High School Juniors Program between my junior and senior years. With the encouragement of Stanley Marshall, the executive director of the UMaine Pulp and Paper Foundation at that time, I applied for and became a lab technician the following summer for SD Warren papermaking company near my hometown of Portland, Maine. This confirmed my interest in chemical engineering as a possible entry into the papermaking field. I received a four-year merit-based tuition scholarship from the UMaine Pulp and Paper Foundation, and never looked back.
Were you involved in any co-ops and research as a chemical engineering undergrad?
I was a co-op student project engineer for Westvaco (now New Page Corporation) in western Maryland my junior year. It was a great hands-on practical opportunity. I still maintain friendships with people I met there. I was also a laboratory instructor for the Chemistry Department in my senior year at UMaine.
Where did your career take you after graduation from UMaine?
I accepted a job in the papermaking field from Procter & Gamble in Mehoopany, Pa. I already knew that I wanted to eventually pursue a career in patent law, so I applied at USPTO, where I knew I would have the opportunity to work as a patent examiner and go to law school in the evenings. I began my career at USPTO in 1983, evaluating patent applications in the papermaking industry. The transition from participating in quickly solving real-world problems to learning about the best cutting-edge innovations in the field was dramatic and interesting.
What sparked your interest in pursuing a law degree?
I read an article when I was a junior in high school about this hot field called patent law. I was intrigued right away, but since I knew I had to pay my own way through college and law school, it took me a while to get there. USPTO and I were a great “match,” so to speak. The Washington, D.C., area had numerous nighttime programs available. USPTO even paid for some of my job-related legal coursework.
Tell us about your duties as an administrative patent judge and what aspects you find most fulfilling.
As an administrative patent judge, I am charged with deciding appeals from adverse decisions of patent examiners. If after inventors at a company apply for a patent and a patent examiner denies them that patent, the inventor/company has a right to appeal that decision to our board. We adjudicate the cases in panels of three and issue a written opinion in each case, so we operate similar to an appeals court. Our decisions can be further appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which has sole jurisdiction over appealed patent disputes in this country. It is most fulfilling to be involved in the innovation process and to be able to make what I believe is the best decision in each case, and be a part of USPTO history.~The Patent Office is an agency with a very long and rich history.~While the first Patent Act was enacted in 1790, legislation that formalized the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (now called the Patent Trial and Appeal Board) was implemented under President Lincoln in 1861. Even prior to Abraham Lincoln becoming president, he would famously say that the patent laws “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
How did UMaine prepare you for your career?
UMaine delivered a top-rate education in engineering. I also had a concentration in mechanical engineering. The analytical approach required in math and science courses, and particularly in the engineering disciplines, laid a groundwork that is useful for so many aspects of my career and my life. I must admit, almost all of my law school classmates who had an engineering degree did very well in law school and we attributed it to our training in analytical thinking.
Best advice to UMaine students?
Set a goal and plan how to reach it. Don’t be afraid to change it along the way. Have fun and be willing to try new job experiences as much as possible. I feel like I have experienced at least six different careers at USPTO and I enjoyed every one of them.
Image Description: Karen Hastings