Alumni Spotlight: Chris Curfman’s Transition from Science to Law

Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.
Chris Curfman. Photo by Yuan Chang.

By: Yuan Chang (Salaita Group)

When Chris Curfman (00G) entered Emory, he could not have imagined where he would end up two decades later. After completing a PhD in chemistry, Chris shifted his focus away from academic research to pursue a career in intellectual property law. Since then, he has been named a Georgia Super Lawyers “Rising Star” by Atlanta Magazine and became a founding member of Meunier Carlin & Curfman, which has since evolved into one of the largest intellectual property firms in the Southeast. In a climate where more PhD students pursue careers outside the professoriate, Chris’ story is an inspiration. “While we are all united by our intellectual curiosity and our love of science, this common drive can diverge into various fulfilling careers,” says Chris. From his trials and triumph with his research at Emory to his self-discovery and transformation into the rising star that he is today, Chris has accumulated a vast wealth of memories and insight, which is highlighted in this edition of Alumni Spotlight.

During graduate school, Chris joined the lab of Dennis C. Liotta, who would have a profound impact on his trajectory. Chris undertook a particularly difficult thesis project working with sphingolipid analogs. The process of constantly overcoming challenges instilled in him the crucial lifelong value of perseverance that would later prove pivotal outside of the lab. This determination was also critical in prevailing over another personal challenge. While Chris had always fostered a passion for teaching, he grappled with a fear of public speaking. As one of the graduate qualification exams, he was required to present his research in front of the entire Department of Chemistry student body. He recalls that he would “enter the conference room when it was empty and practice over and over again.” He went on to deliver a successful talk. Invigorated by this positive experience and his innate passion for teaching, Chris began to actively seek out opportunities for public speaking, which paved his way to standing on the podium of Emory law school as an adjunct professor.

Nonetheless, Chris’s time at Emory was not “all work and no play.” Chris has fond memories of his time as the president of the Pi Alpha Chemical Society. He recalls organizing graduate events, such as movie nights and picnics, to promote social interaction and collaboration amongst graduate students. To him, “It was a fun and great environment. It was a place where you could set aside the work and just talk and socialize.”

During Chris’ last year of graduate school, his advisor began to take notice of his skill at technical writing and public speaking, as well as his proficient interpersonal skills. Realizing that Chris’ skill set complemented the profession of patent law, Liotta catalyzed Chris’ foray into the world of patent law by inviting him to events where he could network with established lawyers. It was at one of these events that Chris had a fateful meeting leading to an interview offer. That was an electrifying time in Chris’ life. Within the span of that final summer in graduate school, Chris managed to simultaneously complete 3 milestones: defending his PhD, gaining acceptance into law school, and receiving a job offer working in a law firm.

After Chris completed his J.D. at Georgia State University, he practiced several years at a small intellectual property firm. However, that firm was acquired by a much larger general practice and Chris found himself at a crossroads. Chris felt that the large firm business model did not align with his own passions and goals. Chris wanted to retain the close relationships with his clients and have the opportunity to devote more time and attention to their needs, yet he found this more difficult in a large general practice firm. It was at this pivotal moment that Chris received a life-changing phone call from a former colleague who shared a similar vision. That initial conversation ultimately blossomed into a group of eight like-minded patent lawyers who pooled together their resources and brought their vision to a new company. When asked about his emotions at this time, Chris said, “this was both a thrilling and terrifying period in my life. I had to invest everything I had into this venture, including putting my life savings on the line, but I could finally do what I had originally set out to do.” At long last, he had the autonomy to become the champion he had dreamed of becoming for clients who must navigate the treacherous waters of patent law.

It has been nearly two decades since Chris made that decision to transition from lab work to law, but all the lessons he learned during graduate school still serve him well today. Chris says that he finds his current profession to be fulfilling and fun, and he feels fortunate to be involved in a career that allows him to intersect science with people, especially being in a position to be able to help others achieve their goals. When asked what words of advice he would give to current graduate students, he implored encouraged them to “never give up, finish their Ph.D., practice public speaking and effective writing, and network whenever you can.” Chris’ journey serves as an inspiration for the next generation of students looking to apply their doctoral studies to broader society.

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Yuan Chang

Yuan Chang is currently a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Khalid Salaita. She entered Emory in 2011 and has been studying live cell tension using molecular tension fluorescent microscopy (MTFM).

Erin Schuler (Dyer Group) Featured by Laney Graduate School

Erin Schuler. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.
Erin Schuler. Photo by Emory University Department of Chemistry.

Erin Schuler (Dyer Group) is featured in a recent “Alumni Spotlight” on the Laney Graduate School website. Congratulations, Erin!

From an early age, Erin Schuler knew that she wanted to have a positive impact on the world, and her interests drew her to science.

As an undergraduate, Schuler worked at St. Elizabeth’s Youngstown Hospital, a community hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. There, she conducted clinical research while also conducting bench-top research at Youngstown State University. From these experiences, Schuler knew that she was interested in translational research, bridging fundamental science with applied science. “It’s very rewarding to see how fundamental science can be used to develop new tools or to understand real world problems from the ground up,” says Schuler. When she made the decision to pursue the PhD, the desire to do translational research led Schuler to the Laney Graduate School’s chemistry program.

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Alumni Spotlight: Shana Topp (04C, 09G)

Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.
Shana Topp. Photo provided by Shana Topp.

Shana Topp is an Emory Super Alum. Inspired by the research experience she began as an undergraduate in the Gallivan Group in 2002, Topp stayed at Emory for her doctorate, which she received in 2009. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship with Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi at University of California-Berkeley, Topp shifted her focus away from chemistry research to pursue a job with The Boston Consulting Group.

Like many entering graduate students, Topp started her doctoral program without a clear sense of her career trajectory. Though she began exploring different options during graduate school, she graduated thinking she would stay in academia. During the two and half years of her post-doc, she continued learning about different professional paths, taking advantage of Berkeley’s proximity to biotech companies, and talking with peers about their own job searches. While thinking about how to narrow the focus of her research for academic job applications, Topp realized it was strategic thinking rather than the benchwork she found most fulfilling, and she wanted a job with broader scope and variation in content.

This realization led her to pursue consulting. She was attracted to the rate at which consultants work on new projects, often in entirely new industries, gain new clients, and rotate teams. The opportunity to experience working with such a broad range of businesses and intellectual challenges excited Topp. She joined The Boston Consulting Group in August 2012 where she works with clients who have identified particular problems or areas of focus they want to improve or change. Though business and consulting communication differ significantly from scientific communication, Topp recognizes important similarities in her new work environment. The processes of analysis and problem solving bear many similarities to those used in chemistry research: being able to take an ambiguous problem and break it down into manageable pieces to approach from various perspectives.

Shana became more aware of the ways in which graduate school had prepared her for a range of careers after gaining some distance from her specific PhD research projects. Though Topp will work with some healthcare and pharmaceutical clients (to whom she can bring unique subject knowledge) she finds the process of determining recommendations for companies quite similar to solving scientific problems. The primary difference is the pace at which these decisions are made. Business teams do not consider every single option; rather, they choose the most feasible and focus their attention without second-guessing. This observation has led Topp to wonder how quickly people could finish their PhDs if this model were used in the academy. Of course, perfectionism would have to find a new home.

When asked what she would tell herself as a beginning graduate student, given her experiences of the last few years, Topp’s words of wisdom stem from the realities and results of her job search. She emphasizes the importance of networking and finding avenues for meeting people and learning about different career options whenever possible. Particularly at scientific meetings, where conversations focus on the science, there are also occasions for gaining insight and exposure to different paths. The more information you have about different professional directions, the easier it is to identify priorities and goals for the future and the more likely you are to find career options to explore and/or pursue.

Alumni Spotlight: Susan Richardson (89G)

Susan Richarson. Photo provided by Susan Richardson.
Susan Richardson. Photo provided by Susan Richardson.

Susan Richardson 89G, a graduate of Fred Menger’s lab, has been a research chemist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for over 20 years and discusses her insights about working at a government agency with graduate student Carol Jurchenko.

Q: What was the focus of your graduate school research?

SR: My graduate school research involved Physical Organic Chemistry. I was studying synthetic phospholipids and their packing behavior in monolayers. The ultimate goal of our work was to develop vesicles with synthetic lipid bilayers that could be used for controlled drug delivery. Many drugs, including harsh chemotherapy drugs have adverse side-effects because they act all over the body, not just at the intended tumor. The idea behind the research was to design vesicles with controlled fluidity and with functional groups that could allow the vesicle to be opened by an enzyme at a particular site in the body, releasing the drug to the specific place it is needed. A few years after completing graduate school, I read where someone from our research group was working for a pharmaceutical company, doing just this. Our very fundamental research actually came to fruition.

Q: While in graduate school, was it your plan to work at the EPA or a government agency in general?

SR: No, I actually had no idea that there was an EPA research lab in Athens, GA (kind of embarrassing to admit). The U.S. EPA National Exposure Research Laboratory in Athens, GA is actually quite famous in the international environmental research community, but I had never heard of it before. I really didn’t know what I would do when I completed graduate school, and I had never even taken an environmental class before…A professor at Emory, who supervised the graduate teaching assistants, told me about the EPA lab in Athens and thought I might like it there.

Q: What steps did you take to get your job at the EPA?

SR: One thing I did that made me very marketable was to learn as much analytical instrumentation as possible while I was in graduate school. I used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy mostly, but had a wonderful opportunity to also learn mass spectrometry (MS). At one point, the Chemistry Department needed student volunteers to help run samples in the MS lab. So, I got tons of great experience in high resolution-MS and this experience is what got me the job at EPA (first as a post-doc, and then 8 months later as a permanent federal scientist). It turns out that the gold standard of environmental analysis is mass spectrometry, with high resolution-MS becoming very popular. Just like MS can be used to identify newly made chemicals, it can also be used to identify unknown contaminants in the environment. And, MS has very low detection limits and can be used to analyze complex mixtures, which is typical of environmental samples.

Q: What would you recommend grad students learn or make an effort to experience if they are interested in working at a government agency?

SR: For those interested in doing research, I would recommend learning as many instruments as possible, particularly MS, which is used in so many different fields – not only in environmental research, but also in many other areas, including biomedical (proteomics/genomics), agricultural, pharmaceutical, and petroleum research. I would also encourage them to take a post-doc position if there isn’t a permanent position yet available because it can be a good “foot in the door” and can lead to other opportunities, as mine did.

Q: At the EPA, what are your typical duties throughout the day?

SR: I conduct research experiments, collect drinking water and other water samples, extract samples, and analyze using MS. I collaborate with many other scientists both inside EPA and outside EPA. My research in trying to solve the human health issues regarding drinking water disinfection by-products involves multidisciplinary collaboration with toxicologists, epidemiologists, water treatment engineers, and risk assessors. And, when my research projects are completed, I publish the results in peer-review journals, much like I did in graduate school.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

SR: I love having a direct link into important environmental/human health issues. And, I love being able to collaborate with other scientists to solve complex problems. It’s both challenging and fun!

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of your work?

SR: Compared to other colleagues working at universities, many processes can be very slow at a government lab. For example, ordering equipment or analytical instruments can take a long time, and our publications have to be cleared through management at our laboratory before we can submit them to journals. So, there are some extra steps that take extra time working at a government lab.

Q: What skills did you learn at the EPA that graduate school did not teach you?

SR: At EPA, I learned how to be a Principal Investigator and come up with ideas for future research. When you are a graduate student, you are mostly working on an idea that your professor came up with. And, while you have some leeway through the research to come up with ideas within this area, it is a little different when you are the PI coming up with the bigger, new ideas for the overall research project. Also, I’ve learned how to establish new collaborations and work on multidisciplinary research projects, such that my chemistry piece integrates with the other pieces (toxicology, epidemiology, etc.) to solve the problems. This is something that happens organically, as you attend scientific conferences and interact with other scientists. It helps to be passionate about what you do because it is a bit contagious, and others will want to work with you to solve the complex problems you cannot do on your own.

Alumni Reflection: Malcolm Hendry (48MS, 50G)

1950s Emory Alumni. Photo provided by Malcolm Hendry.
1950s Emory Alumni. Photo provided by Malcolm Hendry.

After I spent 2 1/2 years in the navy, my young bride and I finished our bachelors degrees, mine as a chemistry major. But I didn’t feel I knew enough to be a real chemist. My adviser suggested several graduate schools for me to consider. I still had almost two years of GI bill remaining. After writing to each I set off to select a school. Having no money, I hitchhiked, not nearly so scary in 1947 because the public had picked up hitchhiking service men all during the war.

My plan was to hitch to three graduate schools including Emory. I didn’t plan well, reaching Lookout Mountain in the middle of the night…but then a got a lift on down to Atlanta. When I walked onto the Emory campus and saw all those beautiful Georgia marble buildings I thought it was heaven. They almost glowed in the sunlight.

Emory’s chemistry graduate program was new with only about a dozen students. After meeting the chemistry faculty and determining our mutual interest it seemed that Emory was the place for me. But where would we live? Before the war it was unheard of for married couples to attend school so our next problem was living accommodations. Emory had provided for the deluge of married couples with trailers on campus and the tar paper covered army barracks on Clifton Rd soon to be known as “mudville”. We were assured of a one-bedroom apartment (at a cost of $17 per month, with army bunks and an ample supply of cockroaches).

The chemistry department’s budget was very sparse in 1947. Vessels fitted with ground glass connectors were scarce. So we used rubber connectors. Potentiometers and heating mantles were given, one to each organic researcher. We made our own distillation columns from glass tubes filled with glass beads. Ground glass equipment gradually became available. Each of us had to build our own carbon/hydrogen analysis train to substantiate the new chemical compositions we were synthesizing.

I began my masters research, on an organic chemical reaction involving bromine. The problem was the chemical hoods had no draft to draw off the fumes…so I ran a rubber tube out the window. The clearest indicator of my research was the growing orange bromine stain on the outside marble window ledge.

Our organic research labs were on the first floor, you know, one flight up the grooved marble steps, just below the analytical labs identified by the perpetual rotten egg odor.

Our manometers were filled with mercury. And our stirrers were also sealed from air with mercury. As a consequence of these homemade devices there was always a puddle of mercury in the water troughs used to channel the cooling water from the distillation columns. No problem.

The hood problem became more difficult during my doctorate research. The work involved butyric, valeric, and isovaleric acids (which smell like dirty socks, rancid meat and dog poop.) My wife always made me take off my clothes before entering the apartment and when I stood in a line at the store everyone began sniffing their arm pits and looking in every corner for a “deposit.”

My wife worked as a secretary to the Emory admissions director in the building next to the chemistry building. We walked back and forth to Mudville every day… until June 1950 when I finished my PhD just as my GI bill ran out. It was the 5th PhD given by Emory. There was just enough money left in our piggy bank to take the Greyhound to my new job in Ohio.

Our years at Emory were Wonderful and life changing. Our greatest adventure!