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Heather Stephens

Heather Stephens sits outside.


I am a regional economist and my research is focused on examining differences in policies and other economic factors across US regions. For example, I’ve looked at the factors that affect housing values, things like environmental degradation, energy development and natural amenities. I’ve also done work looking at the role of entrepreneurship in regional economic growth. I’m currently wrapping up a project for the Appalachian Regional Commission where we’re examining how self-employment has helped certain parts of the region do better than what might be expected. I’ve also done work looking at women's choice to become self-employed and how gendered role attitudes affect that decision


One of my goals for the future is to find ways to get my research out to the public and to influence policy. There are places that don’t have things going for them. They don’t have great infrastructure and they don’t have an educated workforce. We would not expect those places to do very well. One of the things that my research has found is that even if a place has those disadvantages, when you have more people starting their own businesses, you can do better than predicted. To me it's hopeful. There are lots of other things you can’t fix very quickly. Helping people start their own businesses is maybe a way to help those places do better.

What I hope could happen is that it could encourage policy makers and others to put money into helping people start their own businesses. That would be very rewarding.

What jobs did you have before coming to WVU?

After college I worked for 14 years before I started my Ph.D. After I graduated from Duke, I worked on Capitol Hill for a US Congressman from Ohio for four years as a legislative aide. Then, I got my MBA and I started working for MCI, the telecom company. I transitioned to working in regional economic development and got my start through a consulting contract with the state of West Virginia. I helped write the implementation codes for a new economic development lab. To pay my bills in the meantime, I went back to waiting tables. After I got paid at the end of the project, I went on a roadtrip and ended up working in Jackson, Wyoming, where I drove a taxi for a while. Then, I went back to my real-world job and worked as a local economic development director in Wyoming for a couple of years. After a few summers working as a Park Ranger, I eventually ended up working in regional economic development in Southeast Ohio at Ohio University. While I was there, I realized that I wanted to get the skills from a Ph.D. to really do my own research related to my expertise that I gained from working in policy making and economic development. I also got experience working with students and really enjoyed it. 

What has been the best or most enjoyable time/class/moment in your education?

My favorite class is one that had nothing to do with what I’m doing now. My senior year, I took an introduction to acting class in which we were supposed to wear comfortable clothes and show up and jump around. I was an economics and public policy major, but I ended up loving the class. I did extremely well in it. In some ways, it probably has served me very well now that I stand in front of a  classroom.  As my husband would say, “Teaching is a performance.”

What has been the best or most enjoyable time/class/moment in your job?

I like teaching, but I like one-on-one teaching with graduate students and undergraduate students, where I really get a chance to help them with their own research and synthesize all the information they gathered. 


What’s one thing you wish you had known in college?

I wish that I had taken more interesting, offbeat classes like the acting one, and others that weren’t so focused on my career. After college, you never do that kind of stuff again. You don’t have the time to be taking an art history class. You get busy with work and life. I did some of that, but I wish I had done more. I especially wish I would have taken more history classes. What you learn in college is just the beginning of what you’re going to learn in whatever field you go into. All that other stuff makes your life a lot richer.

If you won a billion dollars, what would you do with the money?

I might do research and teach a couple classes on the side, but I would retire early and travel the world. I love to travel. I love food. I like trying different kinds of wine. I enjoy hiking and going to the ocean and visiting different cities. There are so many places I haven’t been. Maybe I’d buy a retirement home in Portugal. Maybe another one on the central coast of California, away from the cities and close to the mountains and the ocean.

What were you most grateful for in 2020?

That my husband and I love to cook - and that we’re really good gooks! Also, I renovated my house prior to the pandemic, including landscaping my yard so we have a really comfortable place to spend time. The fact that I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home and do my job and not put myself in harm’s way.


What was most surprising about 2021?

If you told me in March 2020 we’d still be dealing with this in June 2021, I would have been shocked. I [was] surprised it [was] still going on. At the same time, I [was] surprised how quick some people [were] to ignore that it [was] still going on.


Just for Fun

What are you currently reading? The Overstory; Adventures on Wine Route

What’s your favorite meal? Morel mushrooms, a grilled medium rare filet mignon, raw oysters on the half-shell, fresh tomatoes with basil, and a really expensive bottle of wine

What’s an album that you can listen to on repeat? Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits 

What’s one thing you can’t live without? My contacts (to see), my husband and our cat, my free time