July 2001

Shaping Science Policy — International, National and Regional

Symposium on Women in Science

Discovering How Taxol Works

The Mind of a Child

Changing Course to a Career in Medicine

Working at the Nexus of Law and Science

New Factors in the Chemistry Equation

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© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Working at the Nexus of Law and Science
By Barbara Spector

Ursula Bartels ’79

As a political science major at Bryn Mawr College, Ursula Bartels ’79 was inspired by the political philosophy courses of Stephen G. Salkever, Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Political Science. Her role model was Bryn Mawr’s former president Mary Patterson McPherson. The life sciences? They were far from her mind.

"I was not a science person at all at Bryn Mawr," says Bartels, who took geology to satisfy her undergraduate science requirement. Her passion was student government. After graduating with a degree in political science, Bartels worked as a paralegal and entered law school at the University of Virginia a year later. Today, she helps researchers navigate one of science’s most crucial frontiers — the nexus between research and the law.

Diversity of Views

As vice president and general counsel of Boehringer Ingelheim Corporation, Bartels, 43, is responsible for all legal affairs at its five U.S. subsidiaries and is legal counsel and corporate secretary to the board of directors. Boehringer Ingelheim, headquartered in Germany, is the world’s largest privately held pharmaceutical company. The company’s products target many disease areas, but it focuses especially on respiratory and AIDS medications. In 1999, it reported revenues of about $4.6 billion. Bartels enjoys investigating the cutting edge of both law and science. "Part of the fun of this job is that I’m working with an underlying substantive topic that is challenging," she says.

While she didn’t do molecular biology or immunology research in college, Bartels developed skills that have served her well in her career.

"When I was at Bryn Mawr, I learned how to think and ask questions — how to have an open mind toward a diversity of views," she says. A stint as a researcher for a former general counsel to the Food and Drug Administration, Richard Merrill, sparked her interest in food and drug law. A call from a headhunter in 1988 brought her to SmithKline Beecham (now Glaxo SmithKline). She joined Boehringer Ingelheim nearly two years ago.

Science Outpaces the Law

From her office in Ridgefield, Conn., Bartels leads a team of attorneys who every day face a fundamental dilemma: "Science is clearly evolving a lot faster than the law," she says. "The law has to scramble to catch up."

One gray area involves patient privacy issues. "We’re living in the information age, in which anything you want is available on the Internet," Bartels notes. Another issue yet to be resolved is whether pieces of the genetic code can be patented. Although biomedical research organizations are pressing forward with patent applications, the courts have yet to determine whether the patents will hold up, she says.

"Business is all about taking intelligent risks," Bartels asserts. "If you only did things that were safe, you wouldn’t get anywhere." Her department educates research staff about the potential legal pitfalls that inevitably accompany scientific progress. Lawyers sit in on scientific meetings and discuss with company researchers the necessity of patenting the assays or processes used in their investigations.

One of her department’s more routine functions is developing contracts for Boehringer Ingelheim’s funding of academic research and determining which institution will own the rights to the products of experiments Boehringer Ingelheim supports. "The critical thing is the contact among the scientists," Bartels stresses. When researchers collaborate, "kinetic things happen," she says. "The idea from a business standpoint is to be able to harness that."

Global Business, Multinational Law

The fact that Boehringer Ingelheim is a global corporation also poses challenges for the legal department. Company researchers, seeking to simplify procedures, would like to have a purchase-order template they could use to contract for all supplies. Corporate attorneys, on the other hand, recognize that a contract that is valid in the United States may not apply in Belgium. "We have to explain that you can’t use a single purchase order all around the world," Bartels says. "The world is struggling to get to a place where the law is as globalized as business is."

Bartels and her staff of 15 attorneys — several of whom have advanced degrees in science — draw up contracts with biotechnology company partners that deal with the details of screening assays and combinatorial chemistry techniques. Her department frequently must provide legal input to Boehringer Ingelheim’s sales and marketing staff on the language used in product claims to ensure compliance with FDA regulations. Through meetings with company researchers, she’s had plenty of science lessons. "Often they want to start at Level 1,000, and you have to start at Level 1," she says. "I tell them that I need to ask a lot of questions, and I hope that they won’t mind."

Her nonscientific background has its benefits. When Boehringer Ingelheim goes to court with a patent-infringement case, for example, she’s able to see the scientific evidence the way a juror might see it — which helps frame arguments and prepare trial exhibits that lay out the science in an understandable way.

Bartels’ work takes her to Europe four times a year to meet with top officials at the company’s headquarters in Germany’s Rhine Valley. When she’s not traveling, her days start between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m., a schedule that enables her to make phone calls to Germany during business hours in Europe. She tries to leave the office by 6:30 p.m. to have dinner with her partner, Laura Zucker, and their three children, ages eight, six and two. "I’m not sure I could do this job if I were a single mom," she says.

About the Author

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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