James O'neil speaking at the BEYA awards ceremony

For Project Leader, a Healthier World Is All in a Day’s Work

By Nancy Gast Romps

James T. O'Neal

As a health and life sciences principal at MITRE, James T. O’Neal leads projects that help the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services enhance the health of all Americans. For COVID-19, this meant working on behalf of Operation Warp Speed and, later, the White House COVID-19 Response Team to ensure a national stockpile of COVID-19 convalescent plasma and the utilization of monoclonal antibodies. This month, at the 36th Becoming Everything You Are (BEYA) STEM Global Competitive Conference, O’Neal will receive a 2022 Black Engineer of the Year Award for Outstanding Technical Contribution in Government.

At first glance, my title suggests that I originally came from a healthcare background or biomedical-specific skill set. But I actually grew into that skill set. In my role I combine my MITRE-gained health and healthcare skill set with my systems management knowledge. I then add knowledge of the domain-specific expertise from our MITRE Labs and program organizations. As a team, we solve some of our nation’s most complex challenges in healthcare.

Before joining MITRE, my definition of “healthcare innovation” would have been limited to the development of new drugs or medical procedures. My view on that has changed substantially!

My experience now affords me the chance to contribute to a greatly expanded healthcare innovation environment, working alongside some of the most talented professionals in the world.

Heads Together to Save Lives

During my 12 years at MITRE, I’ve worked on a wide variety of difficult projects that have real impact on our world. For example, I helped the Department of Veterans Affairs establish a new acquisition organization, and then procure a modernized, integrated health record. I’m thankful this part of my work supports the veterans who tirelessly defended our country.

Our work during the COVID-19 pandemic led to the promotion of science-based information about therapeutics that’s saved lives. It’s been the most important and professionally rewarding work of my career.

Every day, I benefit from—and have a responsibility to contribute to—an incredible wealth of knowledge in countless disciplines. Early in my MITRE tenure, a former Apollo 11 program scientist was effectively reporting to me on a federal program management project. How cool is that?

A Critical Thinking Approach to Systems

Business and science have always fascinated me. Growing up, I was inspired by entrepreneurs in my small town who provided for their families while delivering goods and services to our community. And after my seventh-grade math teacher introduced me to the concept of critical thinking, I learned to explore a systems approach to identifying challenges and solving problems.

After graduating with a degree in political science, I accepted a position in logistics. I took interest in other parts of the role—specifically information systems management. At my next job, as a telecommunications management consultant, I conducted market research to make data-driven decisions about our product offerings.

In all my early professional experiences, I had the opportunity to meet and work with MITRE staff as they accompanied my federal customers in meetings and strategy sessions. Because MITRE had a sterling reputation as “where the smart people worked,” I made it my goal to pursue employment here.

Be Prepared. Give Maximum Effort. Be Good to People.

The typical day at MITRE begins with copious amounts of coffee, and a full expectation that the day will most likely not be typical!

Our team is known for our work ethic and marathon document-writing sessions, but we also have fun while doing this difficult work. As a result, we can decompress and focus more on solutions than the weight of the challenge—especially now, as we fight the largest healthcare crisis of our lifetime.

My goals for every day are simple: Be prepared. Give maximum effort. And be good to people. If I can satisfy all three things, then I’ll usually have a great day.

The hours can be long, but I am energized by the impact my work has on the operation of our government and in the improvement of public health outcomes.

Workplace Diversity = Better Solutions

I’ve always felt a responsibility to use my resources to help improve the outcomes of Black students—especially those who, like me, are from rural areas. Direct relationships with familiar mentors and role models can have a lasting impact.

The beauty of MITRE resides in the skills of our employees and their dedication to making our world a better place. A diverse workforce brings together the unique points of view that can translate to well-rounded solutions for our sponsors.

When we work together, we learn about each other, respect our differences, and solve problems in innovative ways.

—As told to Nancy G. Romps

Join our community of innovators, learners, knowledge-sharers, and risk takers. View our Job Openings.