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Take me home, country roads: Dr. Sam Workman, Tech alumnus, returns to West Virginia


Dr. Sam Workman, a Fayette County native and Tech alumnus, was recently named the Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Public Affairs at West Virginia University.

In late December of 2021, Tech alumnus Dr. Sam Workman was named Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Public Affairs in the John D. "Jay " Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics at West Virginia University. His career has taken him across the United States and even internationally, but Workman is happy to be back in his home state. Workman attributes his early academic development to the experiences he had at Tech, which helped launch his career in academia and research.

The Fayette County native has had a successful career across the country, with teaching stints in Texas and Oklahoma, most recently, before returning home to West Virginia.

A Fayette County native, Workman graduated from Midland Trail High School (’97) and made his way to Tech, graduating in 2001 with a degree in industrial relations and human resources.

"I grew up knowing Tech was the place to be, and they had great programs. The longer I was there, the more I loved it. It was the springboard and foundation to pursuing my graduate degree,” Workman said.

“The reason Tech was so influential was that it was a campus where I sat in classes with everyone - from physicists who were building hydrogen cars to psychologists talking about human cognition. That was a big deal for my intellectual development and helped me learn from and borrow ideas from other fields,” he said.

While at Tech, Workman was involved in campus student government activities and wrote editorials for the newspaper about local politics, which he still does in his new capacity.

The decision to go to graduate school came from the suggestion of one of his professors, who encouraged him to apply to West Virginia University.

“I didn’t realize there was such a thing as graduate school, or at least graduate school for people who weren’t lawyers or doctors,” Workman explained.

Workman decided to apply, and a professor called in a favor to Morgantown because his application was late.

Though Workman’s undergraduate degree was in industrial relations and human resources, he took a lot of economics and political science courses. The premise of how people make decisions, combined with his interest in politics, led him to get his master’s degree in political science.

“I grew up listening to my father and grandfather talking about politics over the table,” he said.

Workman decided to pursue his doctorate in political science, which led him to the University of Washington in Seattle to study with prominent political science scholars.

Since receiving his Ph.D., Workman taught as a professor at the University of Texas-Austin and the University of Oklahoma before his current role brought him back to West Virginia.

“I can remember those conversations with my dad and grandfather. Back in those days, the senators were Rockefeller and Byrd, so a lot of those conversations revolved around what those two senators were doing. What’s really special about this job is that I have come back home to lead the Rockefeller Institute of Policy Research and Public Affairs. The little boy that was five listening to these conversations now heads the institute with the senator’s name on it. It’s special in a way that’s almost beyond words,” he said.

In simple terms, the mission of the Rockefeller Institute of Policy Research and Public Affairs is to provide nonpartisan policy research for the state and local officials in West Virginia and around the region. All the institute’s work is grant-funded. When not writing grants for research funds, Workman is out in the community doing community engagement and public outreach.

“Part of my job is curating our research in a way that is digestible to the public, including our state and local officials. A lot of what I do is travel around the state, hearing about what challenges they face and what opportunities are out there. It is translational work, turning science into something usable for our officials, but also going out and interacting with those state and local officials on the ground,” he explained.

Meeting with state and local officials helps inform the research and topics the institute studies, which can translate into more resources to help solve those problems.

His present work is focused on education policy, which is part of a large National Science Foundation grant where he and his team are examining arguments about education policy.

“We’re examining how groups, citizens and officials talk about policy and how they use data and research in those arguments. We’re also studying what the influence of data and research is in education policy,” Workman explained.

“We also just put in a huge grant with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to study how policymaking at the county level influences disparities in health outcomes because of opioid abuse,” he said.

Workman has had to step away from teaching in this new position. While he still works with a few students who help him at the institute, he does miss having students in a classroom.

“I do miss teaching a great deal. We all go to school to improve our lives, but when you get a student who sits in your classroom because they care; because they want to understand how government works or how people make decisions, it’s really special to interact with those students. In my capacity now, I currently fund three different students, so students work with me on research, but in an applied setting instead of in a classroom. If I was ever in a position where I no longer got to be around students at all, I don’t think I would like it very much. In fact, I think my quality of life would be a little less because I really enjoy that aspect of my job,” said Workman.

Coming back to West Virginia was not always part of Workman’s plan, but there was always a desire to return to his home state. He ended up missing West Virginia when he moved across the country.
“I don’t think it was originally the plan, but deep inside my chest there was a little burning fire that I knew that’s where I was going to end up,” he said.

“I’ve lived from one end of the country to the other. But I have a deep devotion to the state and the people of this state, so to be able to come back here and serve is the highlight of my career.”