When Jeneeta O'Connor ’14 interned in the Research Foundation for SUNY's Technology Transfer Office, she didn't know anything about technology transfer. Even so, "My internship was a pivotal point in my career," she said.
Today O'Connor is Deputy Compliance Officer at the Research Foundation. She works with a team of five that oversees corporate compliance policies for the entire organization. O'Connor helps write the policies and leads compliance training for RF employees, principal investigators, administrators, and folks in sponsored programs—anyone who needs to know the rules that govern their work as employees and representatives of the Research Foundation. O'Connor also manages conflict of interest issues for researchers involved in innovation or startups.
O'Connor interned with the Innovation and Partnerships group in the Tech Transfer Office while earning a J.D. at Albany Law and an MBA at Union Graduate College (now known as Clarkson University Graduate School). At that point, she hadn't quite figured out how to combine her legal and business education into a career, so she and her supervisor took the opportunity to explore professional pathways. "At the very outset, my supervisor had me lay out what I wanted to get out of the internship so I would be doing meaningful work that would set me up for what I wanted to do postgrad," said O'Connor. "I wanted assignments that would help me get into the field of compliance, so I got to work on our internal controls evaluations."
Her first major endeavor focused on process flow throughout the RF. "I interviewed all the functional heads within the Office of Innovation and Partnerships, talked to them about what risks they saw in their areas, and how to rank those risks. Then I put together a full report listing each area, associated risks, and what controls we currently had in place to manage those risks," she explained.
When she handed in her report, she was asked to share it with the director of compliance, a request that took her aback. "As an intern, I expected to be given low-risk work. I was surprised when they relied on me to deliver quality work that needed to be done. I was also surprised that as an intern with the technology transfer group, I could be a resource to the compliance group," she said.
"The experience led me to think differently about my career trajectory. It helped me understand that there are other ways I could use my degree and my skillset to contribute to an organization besides just being in counsel's office," she said.
Once O'Connor had some real-world experience under her belt, as well as a more refined vision of what she wanted to do, her supervisor helped her draft a description of her ideal job and pitch it to the compliance office. The pitch went well—O'Connor was hired by the person who's now her current boss after the position was posted and she was interviewed.
As Deputy Compliance Officer, O'Connor is constantly using soft skills she learned as an intern in technology transfer. "One of the most important skills is the ability to ask the right questions about a new scientific technology or product I'm unfamiliar with and be sufficiently prepared to understand the answers," O'Connor said. "That skill is critical to what I do today when I talks with researchers who create innovative tech or a new spinoff. … These people are experts in their fields, and they're brilliant. When someone's going off about this new formula they've come up with, that's not my area—but the compliance side is. Figuring out how I can apply my skills regardless of not having the subject matter expertise is something I picked up during my internship with the Innovation and Partnerships group."
"Working with that group also helped me understand the kind of conflicts experienced by PIs who are involved with innovation and startups," she added. Understanding those conflicts helps her manage relevant compliance issues; for instance, would a researcher be out of compliance for using his or her campus lab facilities to conduct work for an outside startup?
Finally, interning with folks in the field of tech transfer enhanced her ability to offer them expert guidance regarding compliance issues. "They're out there with new tech, new innovation, helping startups, helping with patents," O'Connor said. "There's a lot of risk involved. Our being able to provide them with clear policies and procedures helps them navigate through all of that. When you're running with all these ideas and programs, it's easy to fall out of compliance if you don't have clear guidance and procedures in place, so I'm happy that our department can be very helpful to them in that way."
O'Connor is also helpful to folks outside the institution's walls; she's a mentor and serves on the Programming Committee for the Tech Valley Young Professionals Network of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce. "The Innovation and Partnerships group would bring together people across the system to better position themselves to win really competitive grants. I translate that into work I do outside of SUNY," she said, referring to her position as co-chair of community relations for the Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Network, through which she brings together young professionals in the Capital Region.
Last year O'Connor hosted an entrepreneurial showcase, helping young people network, share resources, and build momentum in their careers. "It's a lot of what the Innovation and Partnerships group was doing," she said, "only they were talking about SUNY startups. For me, the young professionals are startups investing in themselves."
Even though O'Connor interned in a department that did not mirror her interest, she appreciates how the experience shaped her professional growth, both within and outside SUNY. "I spent my internship in a different department, so I didn't necessarily develop the technical and compliance skills I use today. But the management skills, the partnerships skills, those kinds of soft skills that are necessary to be a leader of an organization—those are the skills I got from being in that department. I wasn't going to be a patent attorney and I wasn't interested in innovation and partnerships as a career, but I don't think I gained any less from being there. If anything, it challenged me to really think about what I wanted to do."