Sebastien Tilmans grew up a few miles from Capitol Hill, but the halls of power were largely a mystery to him.

That was before the civil and environmental engineering graduate student experienced the Stanford Woods Institute’s Rising Environmental Leaders Program (RELP), an innovative, yearlong interdisciplinary initiative that helps participants maximize the impact of their research through firsthand knowledge of how to fund academic work, build networks, inform policymakers and communicate science research to nonscientists. A key component of the program is the D.C. Boot Camp, an intensive week that introduces participants to a range of government-sector professionals, including Stanford alumni.

Recently back from the Boot Camp, Tilmans called the experience “revelatory.” The agenda was packed with 20 sessions including 38 speakers representing organizations ranging from National Public Radio to the Environmental Protection Agency, from The Nature Conservancy to the World Bank.

“I learned more about how the government really works in one week at RELP than I did in all my years growing up in the D.C. area,” Tilmans said. “It's too easy to view DC as a town full of doctrinaires and obstructionists. I was consistently struck with the realism of the people we met, and their eagerness to get things done. I'm far more optimistic about the government than I was previously.”

Tilmans and the cohort of 20 other participants, selected from a competitive field representing six of Stanford’s seven schools, have wide-ranging research interests, including the brain science behind environmental decision-making, fisheries management optimization, the effect of changing landscapes on infectious disease transmission and the development of non-petroleum-based plastics.

All of them share a passion to become environmental leaders across sectors: academia, government, business, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks. To take a step in that direction, they gave up their spring break for a cold, blustery week in Washington.

It was worth it for the opportunity to hear personal perspectives from a broad array of people working in the policy world, according to Nina Overgaard Therkildsen, a postdoctoral scholar in biology who wants to make fisheries management more sustainable. “These personal accounts gave me a much better understanding of how the policy process operates and how I can work to make my science more useful for decision-makers in the future.”

James Flanagan, a chemistry graduate student studying sustainable plastics, agreed. When describing what I do to a general audience, I learned to focus on describing the benefits of my research in terms that nonscientists can relate to.”

Flanagan's newfound skill is key to navigating the capital. It’s important that early-career scientists are aware of how the scientific communications industry works and how scientists’ publishing practices directly impact not only their own careers, but also play an important role in the advancement of science in society,” said Elizabeth Marincola, chief executive officer of the Public Library of Science and a Boot Camp speaker.

Marincola might be been pleased to know that several RELP participants were inspired to get to work on communications action items, including writing an op-ed, broadcasting a radio show and starting a blog.

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment is developing global leadership by focusing on skills, knowledge and networks to move ideas into action and support informed decision-making. Learn more.