Faces of NeurotechEU: Interview with Kathleen O’Connor from the University of Lille

In the faces of NeurotechEU series, several people in the NeurotechEU alliance are interviewed to learn about their experiences and insights. 

Kathleen O’Connor is Vice-President for International and European Networks at the University of Lille. We are talking with her about the benefits and challenges of being part of NeurotechEU.

One significant advantage of working in networks, which I anticipate will apply to NeurotechEU, is establishing strong relationships.

Kathleen O'Connor

It’s quite an interesting situation being in Stockholm and having a conversation with someone who is from both France and the United States. What is your story of ending up in France?

My journey began at Indiana University in Bloomington, where I pursued my undergraduate degree in French, then master’s degrees in French literature and French linguistics. Through an established exchange program with the University of Lille, I went to France to teach English for a year. Due to the lack of a replacement, I stayed for another year and worked on my thesis alongside teaching. Eventually, I completed my research and received a full-time position at the University of Lille, where I currently work.

How did you get involved in the NeurotechEU alliance?

Since 2016, I have been involved in various roles related to international relations at the University of Lille, including serving as a Vice-Rector. My focus has been on international and European networks, and our primary goal was to become part of a European University Alliance. This pursuit led us to join NeurotechEU.

Despite narrowly missing the mark in the first two calls, we explored alternative possibilities and reached out to different partnerships. Fortunately, everything fell into place, and we successfully became a part of NeurotechEU.

It has been quite a journey, and I’m excited to participate in this innovative project across borders and disciplines, ultimately converging in the NeurotechEU project.

You are in a unique position as someone with insights into university international relations in both the United States and Europe, allowing you to compare the benefits in each region.

In the United States, student exchange programs are often seen as primarily for language-learning students. The focus is less on the broader benefits for all students and more on cultural exposure. I perceive the United States to have a more old-fashioned attitude toward mobility, emphasising significant research projects. Prominent universities tend to prioritize research, and international relations are often seen as a means of student recruitment, particularly for doctoral programs.

On the other hand, in Europe, there is a belief that students from all disciplines can benefit from exchange programs. The emphasis is on cultural immersion, learning new things, meeting people, and gaining valuable experiences. In Europe, international partnerships are viewed more broadly and comprehensively. So, I think in terms of international relations and partnerships, it’s two different worlds, the United States and Europe.

What is the main thing you gained from the NeurotechEU project?

It’s hard to say it now, as we only became official members in March. However, we have received a warm welcome, which has been encouraging. We are most excited about the future possibilities and the different avenues for collaboration. At the University of Lille, we see networks as a positive and beneficial opportunity. One significant advantage of working in networks, which I anticipate will apply to NeurotechEU, is establishing strong relationships. Researchers and administrative staff become familiar with one another, enabling us to be agile and efficient when developing and submitting projects we want to submit for funding from the European Commission.

During phase two [starting in November 2023], we could leverage the existing organization and solid partnerships established, allowing us to act swiftly and submit proposals relatively quickly. This exemplifies the benefits of long-term partnerships and stability, contributing to increased agility, efficiency, and effectiveness.

The Board of Rectors meeting in Stockholm focused on determining the main direction for the future. In your opinion, what are the most significant tasks that lie ahead?

From my perspective, the rectors consider management to be the most critical task. They aim to establish clear roles and responsibilities, ensuring that decisions are appropriately delegated to the relevant individuals. Implementing effective management processes is a priority for phase two.

Additionally, there were discussions regarding the future of partnerships. Questions arose about the need for new partners, the selection criteria for these partners, and the timeline for decision-making. Lifelong learning and mobility were also addressed, with several related questions being considered. It is encouraging to note that the directors recognize the importance of their active involvement and the necessity of frequent meetings to oversee the project and demonstrate its high-level impact across the participating universities.

In your opinion, what could pose the most significant challenge?

I believe one of the significant challenges will be ensuring adequate preparation for the start of phase two. By solidifying the organizational structure and refining the management processes, we can significantly facilitate the smooth implementation of the project during this phase. This preparation is crucial for establishing a streamlined and efficient operation.

Additionally, mobility appears to be a considerable challenge. There are various concerns regarding how mobility will function, whether virtual, physical, or a combination of both. We must prioritize addressing these challenges, as mobility is crucial in meeting the project’s expectations.

What advice would you give to a university interested in joining the Alliance?

Firstly, I would recommend that they prepare themselves for an engaging and time-consuming journey. Participating in this project is both fascinating and demanding. Still, the efforts invested will ultimately benefit the students, researchers, staff, and the university.

Highlight complementary attributes, expertise, and contributions to enhance outcomes. Demonstrate alignment with Europe’s vision and consortium objectives. Emphasize common goals, values, and commitment to collaborative research and innovation.

What is your takeaway from these few days?

The overall atmosphere has been highly positive. There is genuine excitement about entering phase two, assuming successful project validation [update July 2023: NeurotechEU received another four years of funding]. It’s evident that there is a strong camaraderie among the team members, and they enjoy working together. This sense of unity and mutual respect is crucial for a project’s success. From the perspective of the University of Lille, one of the newer partners, we felt warmly welcomed and are thrilled to be part of this collaborative endeavor.


By: Krisztina Csiba, University of Debrecen

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