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Department: Electrical Engineering

Toppin Electrical Engineering

Catherine J. Toppin ’02

Attorney, Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge

A desire to be challenged

I applied to Princeton with a strong interest in math and science, but with no clear vision of what my academic future would hold. Fortunately, I had parents who were very supportive of whatever I chose to do, and encouraged me to pursue an education, rather than a career track. At that time, I had no clue what I wanted to do or how exactly I was going to figure it out. But I did know that I loved a challenge.

My academic future quickly started to take shape after attending what was then known as Princeton’s Summer Scholars’ Institute. During the short summer months before my freshman year, the institute, headed by former Dean Hal McCulloch, introduced me to only a small portion of the wide range of opportunities that the engineering departments at Princeton had to offer. After engaging in advanced calculus classes, anthropology classes, and various engineering and physics demonstrations, my interest was piqued. I began to realize that engineering offered exactly what I was looking for: math, real-world scientific application, broad career opportunities, and a broad curriculum that allowed me to explore my other interests in the humanities. I also enjoyed the idea of conquering the social learning challenges, recognizing that engineering presented an opportunity to distinguish myself, as relatively few minority women were represented in the field. I later selected the electrical engineering department because of my interest in understanding the language and science behind things like computers, semiconductors, power systems, and radio frequency communications, technologies that in my mind had changed the world.

From engineering to law

Upon graduation, I took a position as a patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and began to research the next step in my formal education. Law school fell easily into place, as there were several recent graduates at the USPTO who were thinking of becoming patent attorneys. I learned firsthand through my work as an examiner that patent law was a natural blend of engineering and legal studies. The following year, I left my job to attend the University of Maryland School of Law. While in law school, my engineering background continued to be an asset during my internships with the Federal Communications Commission, the House Judiciary Committee, and the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. In each experience, I was able to apply the analytical thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills that I learned as an engineering student at Princeton.

Now, as an associate in the intellectual property department of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge in Boston, I continue to draw upon the engineering skills I learned at Princeton. Each day I encounter technologies that vary across several science and engineering disciplines, and my job is to analyze, write, and solve problems in an effort to gain and protect the intellectual property rights of my clients. I continue to find the challenge of learning new and difficult things stimulating and satisfying, and it is what I love most about being in my profession as both an engineer and a lawyer.