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March 30, 2018 Women in Business Awards 2018

Ropka's 'unwavering curiosity' yields success in science and law

Photo | Steve Laschever

If genes carry intellectual and physical traits, then Stacie Ropka is genetically predisposed to be untiringly curious.

Her intellectual curiosity brought her first to science and then to the law. And although both fields are overwhelmingly male-dominated, she's never been deterred by the fact that she lacked a “Y” chromosome.

Not only is Ropka an accomplished scientist, she's a practicing intellectual property rights attorney and partner at Hartford law firm Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider LLP. Both make her rare indeed.

A recent United Nations Women in Science report found just 30 percent of scientific researchers are women. Law360 reports that fewer than 35 percent of attorneys at law firms are women and only 19 percent are partners in boutique law firms.

Ropka has had success in two male-dominated fields — Profiles in Diversity Journal listed her as one of the and “Women Worth Watching in STEM” in 2017 — but she counts herself lucky for always having had a supportive and collegial work environment.

“Whenever it mattered, I never realized I was the only woman in a roomful of men,” she says.

Ropka has a Ph.D. from SUNY Upstate Medical University in microbiology and immunology and an MBA, master's and bachelor's degrees from DePaul University. She was a researcher at Northwestern University and SUNY in the fields of neurology, virology and immunology, where she focused on the role immunity plays in motor neuron disease.

But while she relished running experiments, after two decades in a lab she decided it was time for a change.

So in 2005, she earned a law degree at Syracuse University College of Law and found a niche in patent law and intellectual property rights.

“I like the idea of bringing the science to the law,” she says, although she notes it can be frustrating “because science is shades of gray and the law is black and white.”

Legal, scientific translator

Fresh out of law school, Ropka joined New Jersey intellectual property law firm Lerner David, ready to start her new career at the age of 44.

In 2007, she made the move to Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider LLP, a boutique law firm with offices in Hartford, New York and Washington, D.C., that specializes in antitrust and intellectual property cases. Often these cases involve blockbuster drugs with hundreds of millions of dollars in product development and billions of dollars in sales at stake.

“Even when it's litigation, at the end of the day for the client it comes down to business,” says Ropka, whose work includes helping people or companies get or defend patents or helping clients accused of infringing patents.

Most recently, she played a pivotal role in successfully representing generic drug manufacturers Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Actavis Laboratories FL Inc., which both faced patent infringement lawsuits.

In this high-stakes field, Ropka's depth of scientific knowledge has been invaluable as the firm deals with cutting-edge biotech and pharmaceutical companies in complex patent litigation. She also provides extensive support for product development efforts, particularly those involving biologics and products that use adult stem cells.

“As the science becomes more complicated, you need a team of lawyers who have strong litigation skills and strong scientific skills and you put that all together and you get a good product in the end,” says Ropka.

Having Ropka on the team is a bit like having a translator on staff. Because she's fluent in both science and the law, she knows what information will be most pertinent to the case and can help prepare scientific experts to give testimony in a way that a judge, or potentially a juror with no knowledge of science beyond perhaps high school biology, can understand.

“That's part of what we do, translating things into something that's accessible,” says Ropka. “It's one of the strengths I bring to the table.”

And when opposing counsel doesn't have the scientific facts straight, she knows it.

“Her in-depth scientific background helps her to understand even the most complex and sophisticated technologies,” said Chad Landmon, an Axinn partner and chair of the firm's intellectual property group. “She is truly expert in her ability to challenge arguments where opposing counsel falls short in providing information that is less than scientifically accurate.”

Landmon also said Ropka has an “unwavering work ethic, intellectual prowess, charisma and approachable demeanor, legal acuity and business acumen,” that make her a vital and respected team member.

In 2017, Ropka was promoted to partner of Axinn's intellectual property group.

She credits her success to “intellectual curiosity and stubbornness.”

“I want to know the answer and I'm going to keep following leads,” she said. “I go about proving my point. I'm not obnoxious about it. I develop experiments. I gather the facts and put them together and say, this supports a conclusion.”

Q&A

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

What is a legacy? Usually, our first thought centers on money and material things. But, as the wise Anonymous once said, 'The real measure of your wealth is how much you'd be worth if you lost all your money.' Intellectual curiosity, a collegial spirit and a strong work ethic are the 'wealth' I want to pass on to the next generation.

As a lawyer I have applied these principles to advocate for my clients and provide strategies that position them to achieve their overall business goals. These are the same principles I strive to pass on to those I mentor. My professional legacy will be determined by the success of those I have had the pleasure to advise and mentor.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

My law practice focuses on counseling and litigation involving complex biologic-based technologies. To bring value to the firm and our clients I keep abreast of both the technologies and how the law intersects with those technologies. As is true with most endeavors in life, achieving career success also necessitates a high degree of personal commitment and a positive approach.

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