by Madeline Burdine
Although she never imagined herself in the world of academics, Tonya Thornton Neaves’ world of research wheeled her into the classroom at George Mason University, where her days consist of a collaboration of roles that mesh towards a common purpose.
“Traditional academia is changing,” said Neaves when asked what most motivates her work. “Research has become the thrust for higher education.”
Her extensive list of daily duties embodies her stated goal to make a difference in the world around her.
Neaves serves as an assistant professor in the Master of Public Administration program with George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government and is the coordinator for its Emergency Management and Homeland Security graduate certificate. She is also the managing director for the Centers on the Public Service, where she oversees its day-to-day administrative operations, secures new research and development contracts, and pursues making research programs applicable. She also serves as the director of extramural projects, working closely with faculty in developing programs and securing contracts for the policy and administrative sciences. She is also an advisory council member for Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth.
Prior to her move to Mason, Neaves was the director for the Mississippi Public Safety Data (PSD) Laboratory at the SSRC. During her ten-year span at the SSRC, she worked closely with the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. In the lab, she trained law enforcement officers on how to analyze traffic records data in a timely, accurate, and consistent manner to assist the state of Mississippi in meeting its Highway Safety Performance Plan.
Before directing the PSD lab, Neaves additionally worked as a research associate and project coordinator at the SSRC all the while earning her master’s and PhD in Public Policy and Administration from Mississippi State University (MSU). Notably, during this time she received major funding that allowed the saving of an American Trucking Association program. The Association through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration awarded the SSRC two million in funding for The National Highway Watch Analysis and Improvement Program. Under Neave’s direction as the co-principal investigator, the program administered social and evaluation research a switch from the previous engineering research that had been conducted at other institutions.
Today, Neaves remains an SSRC Research Fellow and from time to time an advisor for others who are following in her path of pursuing an education while working for the SSRC.
Karissa Bergene, a research associate on projects with SSRC Director Arthur Cosby and doctoral student in Public Policy and Administration, has worked closely with Neaves despite the two never residing at MSU at the same time.
Neaves completed the doctorate program that Bergene is currently completing (Public Policy and Administration). Both working with Dr. Cosby while pursuing their degrees, putting Neaves in a unique position to advise and mentor Bergene during her time at the SSRC.
“It’s cool having a mentor that’s in another part of the country,” said Bergene when asked how their long-distance mentoring relationship works. “She offers a totally different network than I have here.”
Despite the distance, Neaves and Bergene haven’t allowed almost 900 miles between them to hinder their collaboration. While Neaves travels to Mississippi for SSRC events, Bergene also makes trips to D.C. to attend presentations and conferences alongside Neaves.
Last summer, Bergene was also able to travel to the Netherlands alongside Neaves’ study abroad group while the two also worked on a research project. The project, funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, researches fiscal austerity in O.E.C.D. countries, attempting to create measures beforehand that will provide ease in the time that a recession hits. While in the Netherlands, Neaves and Bergene met with the country’s finance ministry, gaining knowledge of the country’s unique financial system.
“She’s a great mentor,” said Bergene. “She really tries to give back to her fellow students not only at George Mason, but also here at MSU.”
Neaves enjoys retaining a connection to the SSRC and speaks of the unique atmosphere of the Center.
“There is no place like the SSRC in terms of professional development,” said Neaves. She spoke with great gratitude for the time spent under Director Arthur Cosby.
As an active member of the American Society for Public Administration, Dr. Neaves previously served as district representative to National Council, 2014-2017, the program co-chair for the 2018 annual meeting, and conference coordinator for the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration. She is also the treasurer for the Section on Emergency and Crisis Management and serves as an associate viewpoint editor for its Public Administration Review.