Who says young, technical people won’t work for the government?

She's young, she majored in a science and technology field at a good university, and she chose to work for the federal government. Exception to the rule? Maybe.

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She’s young, she majored in a science and technology field at a good university, and she chose to work for the federal government. Exception to the rule? Maybe. But let’s find out. Patent examiner Brooke LaBranche spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. LaBranche, good to have you in.

Brooke LaBranche: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: In studio here. And first of all, if you don’t mind my asking you are a federal employee, you work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. How old are you?

Brooke LaBranche: I’m 28 years old.

Tom Temin: So that qualifies you as somewhere between Z and Millennial?

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, right in the middle.

Tom Temin: All right. So let’s talk about your background education. I mean, what took you to the point at which you were qualified and then decided to work for the federal government? Where do you go to school? What’d you major in?

Brooke LaBranche: Sure. Yeah, I went to the University of Virginia, and majored in biomedical engineering, which qualified me to be a patent examiner, because they do require a STEM background, either engineering or a hard science degree to be qualified for that.

Tom Temin: And growing up STEM areas, the technical areas you liked, and were your forte.

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, it was always something I was most interested in. My mom had a nursing background. My dad was an engineering background. So I kind of grew up around that kind of atmosphere.

Tom Temin: Yeah. So in the table in the kitchen table with a drawer, there were slide rules in your family.

Brooke LaBranche: Right, right.

Tom Temin: And did you find going back, I guess it begins in elementary school. But did you find support in the area that you grew up in and went to school in for women in, and young girls, I guess, elementary school for STEM?

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, we actually, the high school I went to, I was in a program that specialized in science and engineering and technology, it was called a math and science program. And so that was a kind of like a high school magnet school that we were able to apply to and go to so you could you know, specialize in different areas, if that’s what you’re interested in.

Tom Temin: So you’ve been basically immersed in this your whole life?

Brooke LaBranche: Right. Yep.

Tom Temin: All right. Do you find math especially to be something more of a language than something to be struggled over as people often do?

Brooke LaBranche: Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely a language and requires, you know, more of a problem solving mind than anything else to kind of navigate your way through.

Tom Temin: And for biomedical engineering. What are the other elements? Besides I guess math is foundational to all of the sciences and engineering arts, but in biomedical what are some of the other things you need to know?

Brooke LaBranche: Yes, so it’s a lot of science and physics combined, really. So biomechanics, biomaterials are really important. Nanotechnology, a lot of programming as well is involved in biomedical engineering. So kind of computer science it gets into.

Tom Temin: Yeah, when you get really deep into biology, I guess it’s hard to know, is it chemical? Or is it mechanical? Because chemistry is how things behave mechanically at the atomic level, I guess, right?

Brooke LaBranche: Right. Yeah, it’s definitely at the intersection of both of those.

Tom Temin: And we’ve run out about what I know about it. And then you graduated college, and what attracted you to federal service of all things?

Brooke LaBranche: Well, so initially, I was really interested in federal service, because the application process was very straightforward. They provided a lot of information on the requirements, the background you needed to have to be qualified for the job. The compensation and salary was very visible and readily available. So you know what you’re getting into before you apply, not, you know, halfway through the application process, or even once the point where you get an offer, then you’re, you know, kind of wrapping your head around what you’re going to be offered. And also the promotion potential was made available to you right from the start. So you kind of have an idea of how far you have to go once you’re in that position.

Tom Temin: Sure. But with respect to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, I mean, as a biomedical engineer, probably the Agriculture Department has opportunities for that type of work. I imagine somewhere in Interior, maybe NIH, Health and Human Services. And so did you look at those places also, what was it about patent examining that attracted you?

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, patent examining was very interesting to me, because there was such a broad spectrum of technologies that you could be exposed to. And when you first you know, apply and get into it, you don’t know exactly what area you’re going to be dealing with. So it’s kind of exciting in that sense that there’s going to be something new basically every day that you show up to work or get on your computer, the different applications that you’re looking at all involve something different.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Brooke LaBranche, she’s an examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And just a final question on the federal hiring process. It has a reputation for being horrible and taking months and months and months. What was your experience?

Brooke LaBranche: The hiring process at the patent office was pretty simplified compared to that. It was a 10 week process, there was a table like a timeline that was provided along with the job openings, so you know exactly once you post your application, and the on USA Jobs once the vacancy closes, there’s a pretty strict timeline that they follow. And so my experience was right along with the timeline that they proposed.

Tom Temin: And did you also look at industry jobs or commercial jobs?

Brooke LaBranche: I did, I looked at different pharmaceutical companies, some medical device sales companies. And the work here was just a little bit more interesting and, you know, fell into what my strengths already were.

Tom Temin: And what was the onboarding process, like, I mean, you have been there a few years now. So it was not pandemic. But PTO has always been a big telework agency, even before the pandemic.

Brooke LaBranche: Right onboarding was all in-person. And we were in there called labs, there were groups of around 10 of us. And we had, you know, a few teachers per lab group. And we spent four months there, basically just learning how to do the job, learning everything from the MPP, to looking at our first cases, and getting the ball rolling with, you know, starting to understand the examination process.

Tom Temin: So you had four months to get to know colleagues and supervisors in an in-person setting, right. And then pretty much telework beyond that?

Brooke LaBranche: So back before the pandemic, they did have us stay at the office for a little bit longer. I believe it was around two years, and then you had the option to start teleworking as was seen fit. So that time was really good to be in the office to kind of get to know people and be able to ask questions, little easier to be across the hallway from your supervisor and go get help if you needed that.

Tom Temin: And what is the day to day or hour to hour type of work like for a patent examiner? You get I guess they assign the cases to you. And then what do you do somebody invented a new earbud or something? I don’t know. And then what do you have to do?

Brooke LaBranche: Right. So we have we have a docket full of cases that have been assigned to us, like you said, so on the day to day, I will, you know, open up new cases that have been assigned and kind of familiarize myself with those technologies. And you know, what the inventive feature is of that particular application. And then I’ll begin a process of searching through a database of patents that have already been issued or disclosures of patent applications. And I’ll be looking for something that is similar and maybe is overlapping in scope, and seeing how the claims of the new application compared to what’s already been out there and has been disclosed. So after I do that, I’ll spend some time writing office actions which are the official correspondences between the office and the applicant. And those will include any minor informalities that need to be fixed, rejections in view of the prior art and any allowable subject matter that I see.

Tom Temin: And just in general, what is the rate of rejection versus granting in the field?

Brooke LaBranche: That’s a hard question to answer, because it varies a lot based on different technologies. And that is all information that’s made publicly available. So there’s a lot of transparency about what those allowance rates are.

Tom Temin: But you have turned down people?

Brooke LaBranche
Yes. So there is a process of rejection, and then applicant will come back with making amendments to their claims. And there’s, there’s interactions between the office and the applicant to try to get claims to an allowable state. But if there is the case where there’s an application that just doesn’t have any, you know, novel material in it, then eventually that case would likely go abandoned.

Tom Temin: And have you ever had someone maybe object in a way that’s not just through the formalities, but say, who are you to tell me I can’t patent this?

Brooke LaBranche: No, you know, usually it doesn’t get to a personal level like that. It’s very, either the art is out there, or it’s not. And there’s kind of a very formal correspondence between the examiner and the applicant. So it doesn’t it doesn’t kind of get to the wondering if someone has the authority to say this or that it’s kind of very black and white.

Tom Temin: All right. And do you like your work?

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, absolutely. I do love working there. It’s, it’s great to have the work life balance that we do, like you mentioned, the telework policies, the Patent Office has always been, you know, leaders in allowing for telework. And so it gives me the opportunity to really focus and enjoy the work that I do and put out high quality work but also not sacrifice in other areas of my of my life.

Tom Temin: And say the friends that you went to school with you might still be in touch with any of them, feds?

Brooke LaBranche: Not a lot. Actually. I might be one of the only ones that I know from college. Yeah.

Tom Temin: But you would do it again?

Brooke LaBranche: Yeah, definitely.

Tom Temin: Brooke LaBranche is an examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Thanks so much for joining us.

Brooke LaBranche: Thank you for having me.

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