Interview with Dr. Kenneth Tarbet
How and Why did you become interested in chemistry?
Both my father and older brother were very interested in chemistry, my father has a PhD in chemistry and was a chemist/dentist combination, and spent his life doing dental-chemical research. That's certainly what first got me interested in what all these silly atoms and molecules are all about.
What kind of education did you receive?
Some people would say emphatically, overboard, too much. I received a bachelor's in chemistry and then went on to get a doctorate, and then went to law school to get a JD degree.
Please describe your job:
I'm a patent attorney, obviously specializing in biological sciences or chemical sciences. What a patent attorney tries to do is bridge the gap between science and the law. There are lots of bits of red tape that are involved in procuring a patent in the government, and the rules of the Constitution, and a patent attorney has to understand the science sufficiently well to be able to describe that to the often times silly government examiners.
How long have you been at your job?
I've been an attorney for three years, and previous to that I was a patent agent, meaning that I had no law degree for two years, so I guess it's a little over five years following my graduate program in chemistry.
How much and what kinds of chemistry do you typically use in a day?
My degree was specific to synthetic organics, which means building things with atoms, but I do pretty much anything you can think of as chemistry. Inventors will bring things to me all across the board. I have dealt with inventors that put a new coding on silicon chips and computer hardware, to new codings for medical devices, to new types of thermal inks for inkjet printers, new pharmaceutical entities, new drugs, new methods of administering that drug... I guess anywhere there's an atoms that could be patented, I've had to deal with it.
Any favorite kinds of chemistry? Least favorite?
My least favorite kind of chemistry is in the area of analytical, and thermodynamics. Those would be the least connected to reality. My most favorite would have to be the life sciences.
Why is what you do important for the world, and how does chemistry help you do it?
If you restrict your analysis to the current reality, the what I do is important because the Constitution of the United States, as well as in other countries, believes that an inventor has the right to certain benefits from obtaining or having that specific idea. And the public benefits by having that idea out so people can use it. So what I do allows the inventor or at least promotes people thinking of new concepts for the benefit of all of mankind because I help them protect their ideas. So that's what being a patent attorney helps protect, whether it's actually a benefit to mankind is perhaps better left to an argument with the theorists.
Do you know of one particularly important or rewarding thing you've done as a professional with your knowledge of chemistry?
There have been several chemical inventions that have come before me, and when you argue with a patent examiner, even though it is clear to everyone, to use an analogy, that the sun indeed shines during the day, lots of patent examiners will tell you it is not true. And it is a bit of a trick to try to convince them of something that they should already know is a reality. Having the depth of chemistry I have allows me to use fifteen to twenty different arguments and still say the same thing... and that has been useful.
Were you interested in other sciences or subjects throughout your high school or college education?
I was interested in anything that had to do with science. I spent numerous semesters studying computer programming, in order to be able to use that talent in research just because it was I think a useful part of science. I minored in physics for no better reason than that I found it interesting, and the same thing with math.
What would be your recommendation to a young person interested in chemistry as a profession?
That they examine completely how many wonderful options they have with a background in chemistry. You can do lots of things with that kind of background. You can go into law, which I did, and work as a patent attorney, or you can certainly go into numerous other aspects. One of the things I really liked about, and still like about, chemistry, is how broad of an employment opportunity it can provide you, whereas lots of other career choices, especially in college, can be limiting. If you majored in humanities, then it may be difficult to maybe branch out and go into, say, science. But I think if you start out with a background in chemistry you can use that in lots of different ways.
50 points if you can tell us the dissociation constant for perchloric acid (HClO4) in water right off the top of your head.
It depends a lot on the temperature and the pH of the water...