In the span of a single month in 2013, Keyanna Conner went from being a research and teaching assistant in the Chemistry Department at VCU to working as Political Director of Mark Warner’s campaign for Virginia Senate. Today she has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and serves on the Cabinet of Gov. Ralph Northam as the Virginia Secretary of Administration.
The story of how Conner’s career shifted from the sciences to politics begins in 2007, when Barack Obama launched his first campaign for president.
“He really inspired a new generation, including me, to get involved. I think we had big ideas about changing the direction of the country, it was really idealistic at that time, and I caught on to that wave. After I would leave the lab finishing our research for the day, I would volunteer for the campaign,” said Conner.
After Obama won the election, Conner continued to split her time between pursuing her doctorate at VCU and volunteering her time to campaigns. She worked in the lab of associate dean of research Scott Gronert, Ph.D., and helped him study the impact of alkyl substituents on gas-phased reactions.
“I loved the university because of its sheer diversity. There’s something for everyone at VCU and I don’t think all colleges can say that,” said Conner. ” I came from Hampton University which is a historically black college so it was a different experience and one that I think prepared me to step into my next role.”
Over the years her influence grew in the Democratic Party, and she became chairman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee in 2011 after serving as president of the Metro Richmond Area Democrats.
“Being in Richmond is great because this is our state capital and being here afforded me the opportunity to network and engage with members of our legislature and our state government,” said Conner.
As Conner was finishing up her Ph.D. at VCU, she was faced with a choice. Sen. Mark Warner asked her to help him prepare for his reelection campaign, and despite always imagining herself teaching organic chemistry in a lecture hall, she says her passion for politics pushed her to image a different future for herself.
“I don’t see it necessarily as choosing one career path over another, because I think the traits that I picked up from getting my Ph.D., the basic analytical critical thinking skills apply to everyday life, and I think being a researcher gives me the opportunity to look at things here in government a little differently than someone with a more traditional background,” Conner said.
Conner initially served as Sen. Warner’s political advisor, and later as his political director on the campaign. Following his reelection, she joined his official Senate Office, where she worked primarily as his State Director.
“When I worked for Senator Warner is was more of being an advisor on STEM-related policy that would come through, because it’s great that we had really smart and dedicated members of Congress, but many of them don’t have a scientific background. So, being able to advise the senator on the technicalities of some the decisions that he was facing, I found very helpful,” said Conner.
When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was sworn into office this year, he appointed Conner the Virginia Secretary of Administration, a position on his Cabinet which is responsible for overseeing Virginia’s Department of General Services, Department of Human Resource Management, Department of Elections, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, and Compensation Board. She’s still new to her role but says she’s excited to use her diverse expertise to continue to serve the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“I have been looking and I continue to look for avenues where I can combine both my policy and government experience with my science,” Conner said. “I try to combine those skills and when appropriate I do look and hope to be able to work on something here in government that also supports the scientific community.”
Written by Megan Schiffres