Keyanna Conner earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from VCU. Now she oversees five Virginia government agencies.

Virginia Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner earned her doctorate in chemistry from VCU.
Virginia Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner earned her doctorate in chemistry from VCU.

Keyanna Conner, Ph.D., was running late to work in a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry lab in February 2007 when she caught Barack Obama’s presidential campaign kickoff speech in Illinois on CNN.

“I was sitting there and, like, tears are coming down,” Conner said. “There's all of these emotions that I really didn't know I had.”

Conner, who was pursuing her doctorate from the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences, found herself inspired by Obama and his message of change and public service. “Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done,” Obama said in that speech. “Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call.”

“Obama called us to action,” Conner said. “It wasn’t just talking about change, but what can you do? So I started supporting his campaign in the evenings late at night, making phone calls and doing data entry. Then we started to win, right? And it's like, well, while you're winning you just can't quit this thing. So I was pulling crazy hours in the lab and then late at night continuing to help out other states from here in Richmond.

I come from a family where you work hard and there’s a feeling that it’s your responsibility to give something back.

“A passion just started to stir up inside of me and it hasn’t left,” she said.

Conner, who received her Ph.D. in chemistry from VCU in 2015, continued working in politics and public service, first for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and, now, in Gov. Ralph Northam’s cabinet as the Secretary of Administration.

“I come from a family where you work hard and there’s a feeling that it’s your responsibility to give something back,” she said. “For me, there's no greater honor than coming into this building every day and knowing that I'm doing something to advance the cause of Virginians.”

A love of chemistry and public service

Conner grew up on the Eastern Shore in Accomack County. As a high school junior, she fell in love with chemistry.

“My chemistry teacher was just wonderful. She had this great way of helping to break down a concept and it came really easy to me,” Conner said. “And while it was difficult for the rest of my friends to get this, it was very intuitive. And so I decided right then, all right, this is the field that I'm going to pursue.”

She attended Hampton University where she majored in chemistry and continued to excel at science. While there, she took part in an environmental health project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and found that she enjoyed research, especially when it serves the public.

“Tanzania used to be kind of a dumping spot for DDT and all this other bad stuff that wasn't properly stored, so these toxins would seep into the soil and eventually into the water stream. It was causing horrible health effects on the folks living in the surrounding communities,” she said. “So I spent some time there doing analytical chemistry, analyzing that water and vegetation to see exactly what was inside, what molecules were there.”

She graduated from Hampton in 2006, and wanted to pursue a career in research. She enrolled in VCU’s chemistry doctoral program, studying under her adviser, Scott Gronert, Ph.D., who is now associate dean of research in the College of Humanities and Sciences and is a professor and former chair of the Department of Chemistry.

“Keyanna is an individual with an outstanding skill set,” Gronert said. “While pursuing a research project in my lab that required exceptional technical expertise in both organic and physical chemistry, she was also doing community work and developing the foundation for her public service career. Her ability to balance such different pursuits at such high levels is remarkable, as was her rapid transition from a graduate program to the governor’s cabinet.”

Working for Sen. Warner

After volunteering with Obama’s 2008 campaign, Conner began getting involved with the Metro Richmond Area Young Democrats and the Henrico County Democratic Committee.

“I was in graduate school, but doing all this politics on the side,” she said.

Conner knew that while she loved chemistry, she didn’t want to go into industry and didn’t want to be a “lab rat” for the rest of her life. She decided she wanted to either go into academia or give a career in politics and public service a try.

“I’d made a lot of relationships being here in Richmond with legislators and someone introduced me to Senator Warner,” she said. “He's not a guy that you say no to. When he asks you to serve, you serve.”

Conner signed on to serve as Warner’s senior adviser and political director during the 2014 campaign. After his re-election, Warner hired her as his director of government and community affairs, where she was the primary point of contact between the senator’s office and representatives of state and local governments, public agencies and constituency organizations.

Warner eventually named her state director, managing the senator’s five regional offices, overseeing constituency services and outreach.

“[The job involved] all things related to the state,” she said. “If he’s pushing a big policy initiative, it's my job to kind of figure out from a regional standpoint what that means for Northern Virginia, Richmond, for Southwest Virginia. What local issues are out there that I need to then go to D.C. and say, from a legislative standpoint, the senator needs to make a mark here?”

Though she was working on policy and politics, Conner’s training as a chemist was invaluable in Warner’s office.

“I'm very detail oriented because, [with chemistry], you have to be right. One wrong decimal point could blow up your lab. So you have to be in the weeds on that stuff,” she said. “If you know Senator Warner, he has this intensity and he holds himself to a very high standard and he requires all of his staff to do the same, and has a work ethic like no one I’ve ever seen. Also, he's just a really, really smart guy.”

“So going to work for him, while I was technical to begin with, he made me 100 times more that way,” she added. “Every product I produced, it needed to be at a level that I felt comfortable presenting to him.”

Conner approached her work in Warner’s office with the analytical rigor of a scientist.

“Working for Mark Warner made me a far better staffer than I think I would've been working for anyone else,” she said. “He really does hold you to a high standard and it's good because what you're working on could be life and death for someone. You're working on policy that impacts Virginians and their lives. You don’t want to have to go back and do it over. There's no second chance. So I appreciated that. Every day I woke up, I knew I had to give my best because he was giving his.”

Warner delivered the graduation speech at Conner’s graduation from VCU in 2015.

“Keyanna grew up on the Eastern Shore, went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry, and served as my state director before joining Gov. Northam’s cabinet,” he said. “In other words, she’s a true force of nature — she’s someone who knows what she wants, and goes after it.”

Conner, meanwhile, will deliver the graduation speech to this year’s VCU chemistry graduates on May 11.

Secretary of the Administration

After working for four years with Warner, Conner felt the call to serve Virginia as part of Northam’s administration.

“I think he is one of the most genuine human beings I've ever met in my life, good to his core,” she said. “I knew that he was going to work very hard in a bipartisan manner, like Senator Mark Warner, to get things done for the commonwealth. And I thought an opportunity to serve in his administration would be a great honor.”

Northam appointed Conner as Secretary of Administration, which oversees the Department of Elections; the Department of General Services, which includes roughly 11,000 buildings across Virginia; the Department of Human Resource Management, which is responsible for the state government workforce; and the Compensation Board. Northam also added the Virginia Information Technologies Agency to Conner’s secretariat, maintaining the state’s IT infrastructure.

Northam announced his appointment of Conner in December alongside his reappointment of Kelly Thomasson as Secretary of the Commonwealth.

“When Virginians need something from the government their tax dollars fund, they deserve world-class customer service,” Northam said at the time. “These two secretariats oversee functions of our government like elections, contracting and procurement, and rights restoration. I am thrilled to have two strong Virginia leaders joining this team to ensure that we get these important jobs and many others done right for the people we serve.”

Sitting in her office in the Patrick Henry Building at Capitol Square, Conner said she is proud to have the opportunity to continue serving the people of Virginia.

“Someone has to do this and I don't want the keys in the hands of someone that doesn't have that passion,” she said. “There's no better feeling than knowing when I leave from work, I've done something today that will have a huge impact. I think we all have that obligation to give back in some way. And we have a great governor who has a great vision, and if I can play a very small part of that, then that's a highlight of my career.”