By Sheila Pursglove
Damian Kotsis once worked in a research lab housing a refrigerator and freezer from Invitrogen (now Life Technologies). A series of fluorescent protein tags sold by the biotech firm emitted some colors of light, but not others.
“When I asked why they didn't sell various colors, I was told it was because they only sell colors to which they have patents,” he says.
The answer intrigued Kotsis — who eventually turned his life sciences background into a career as a patent attorney with Harness, Dickey & Pierce in Troy, where he revels in this legal niche.
“Every day I use my biochemical and chemical background while drafting and prosecuting patent applications,” he says. “The variety of subject matter is especially great — in the lab I studied various ways of solving one general problem, as a patent attorney I work on wide range of projects.”
Working on patents for rocket fuels, nanotechnology, medical equipment, and new drugs and therapies, his work includes prosecuting a patent application involving lasers than can be used remotely to detect such things as environmental chemicals and biological agents, including toxins, explosives, and diseases. He also has prosecuted patent applications describing methods for generating fuels in bioreactors, part of the race to develop alternative sources of clean, green energy. Another interesting patent involved hybrid antibody-type molecules used to fight cancer cells, a more personalized approach to fighting the disease.
“When I complete one project, I begin another — it seems like every folder that lands on my desk is different from all the others,” he says. “I get to work in areas that reflect my strengths, and the breadth of the new technologies makes the work incredibly exciting. The challenges are great and being able to practice in areas I'm interested in is unbeatable.”
In addition to the work, he enjoys meeting different people.
“It seems like in a lab environment the work and the people become static - I felt like the walls were closing in on me,” he says. “As an attorney at a large law firm, I'm exposed to many more people on a daily basis, including my colleagues and clients, and I enjoy the personal interactions.”
The son of a physician, Kotsis excelled in the sciences at middle and high school before earning a degree in biochemistry from Michigan State University. With an interest geared toward the micro world, he felt right at home.
“I found the world of biological chemistry fascinating, and my interest in molecular biology, protein structure and function, and enzymology continued to grow,” he says.
During his final 18 months at MSU, he performed research in a lab in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, obtaining valuable experience researching calcium release channels that malfunction in disease states such as malignant hyperthermia.
“I loved designing and performing experiments that related to a real pathological condition,” he says.
After graduation he worked for a company in Detroit, analyzing ground samples for pollutants, before heading to Saint Louis University to earn his master's degree in chemistry. Here he developed a research project on mammalian cells that blended his experience in biochemistry and molecular biology with analytical chemistry.
He then enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences program at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, earning his doctorate in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. His research concerning breast cancer provided invaluable experience in biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, cancer biology, protein structure (X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy), and kinetics.
Although Kotsis enjoyed his research experience, there were less appealing aspects to a career in academics.
“Especially during times of economic uncertainty, it's extremely difficult to acquire research funding, especially in the form of federal grants,” he says. “I began noticing many Principal Investigators who were up to their eyeballs with stress — the uncertainty of having funding for research can be overwhelming. Without funding, a PI can't afford to take on grad students to perform research, and without research, it's nearly impossible to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Without publications, it's almost impossible to get a grant. Although I greatly admire and respect PIs, it's a frustrating cycle and I didn't want anything to do with it.”
So Kotsis sought other avenues where he could put his Ph.D. to good use — and decided on law school, although he was concerned this would disappoint his research mentors.
“But they both supported me enthusiastically — and their support helped me to become comfortable with my decision,” he says.
Performing research and writing a dissertation during the day and attending the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law at night — and spending his weekends studying and writing — was one of the hardest experiences of his life.
“I'd be lying if I said they both didn't feel the effects of the other to some extent.”
When he defended his dissertation in December 2010, Kotsis still had three semesters of law school remaining, including a summer semester. Being a 3L, he had trouble finding a patent firm that would grant him an internship, and spent that summer at a law firm in Kuwait where his brother Philip works.
“Although working in Kuwait was a great international experience, I was afraid a lack of patent experience would make it difficult for me a find a job in patent law,” he says.
Happily, his resume found a home at Harness Dickey, and the firm jumped at the chance to bring his extensive life sciences experience into the fold.
The third of four sons, Kotsis comes from a very family-centric home, and calls his parents, Dr. Harry and Katherine Kotsis, his heroes.
“They taught me to live a moral and virtuous life and always encouraged me to pursue my educational and career goals. I had to endure moments of tough love, but my folks always supported me, and continue to do so now. They raised my brothers and me in the Greek Orthodox Church, and taught us to have faith in God, and to always remember to help the less fortunate — they are the ultimate role models.”
A native of Clinton Township, Kotsis grew up in Grosse Pointe Farms, and now lives in Harper Woods - “close enough to my folks that I can stop over for a quick hot dinner with little notice.”
In his leisure time, he enjoys reading, camping, fishing, visiting Northern Michigan, and watching sports, especially all the professional Detroit teams and all MSU teams — with season tickets for the Detroit Tigers and the Spartan football team.
“I also enjoy sporting clays, and playing softball, basketball, and golf - although I stink at golf.”
In October, Kotsis will wed Anastasia Magoulias in her hometown of Modesto, Calif. In one of life's little coincidences, his fiancée works for Life Technologies — the company that owned the refrigerator and freezer in the lab where Kotsis had his first experience with fluorescent protein tags and patents. The couple met through Kotsis' cousin, as Magoulias taught Greek dancing to her children.
“After shrugging off my cousin's attempts to get me to contact her for about 5 years, I finally gave in — the best decision of my life,” he says.
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