By Rob Jordan

It’s not every day that Stanford researchers get career advice from the top environmental official in the United States.

In a recent closed meeting with 13 graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson urged them to challenge convention and look at their environment and sustainability research through policymakers’ eyes. “We need to get past the belief that we’re asking people to give up,” Jackson said. “Instead, we need to show them that we’re asking them to take advantage of opportunities that are right in front of their faces, that will make them stronger and more secure and safer and create jobs... We need you guys to do that.”

The small gathering, organized by the Stanford Woods Institute, was part of Jackson’s larger effort to reach out to academic researchers around the country. During her tenure as head of the EPA ­– which boasts a higher percentage of scientists than any federal agency except NASA – Jackson has met with students and scholars at more than 24 university campuses. The Stanford meeting offered the young scholars a rare opportunity to meet in a small, informal group setting with a cabinet-level member of the Administration.

The Stanford Woods Institute hosted the conversation with participants in its Rising Environmental Leaders Program as part of the institute’s focus on connecting researchers with environmental decision-makers and increasing the role of science in policy-making. “It’s so critical to get all this great environmental research into the hands of policymakers like you,” Woods Executive Director Debbie Drake Dunne told Jackson.

Seated at a round table, Jackson went around the small seminar room asking about academic backgrounds and research interests, which ranged from wastewater treatment technology to climate change adaptation.

Jackson praised Austin Becker, a Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, for considering stakeholders’ perspectives in his work on climate change adaptation strategies for ports, insurance companies and policymakers.

She smiled while listening to Alex Nikulkov, a Ph.D. student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, describe his research into optimizing the growth of charging stations to drive demand for electric vehicles. “What in the world are you doing over here?” Jackson joked before pointing out how Nikulkov’s work challenges a major misperception: “Environment and business – it’s in the back of our heads that you have to make a choice of one or the other,” Jackson said.                 

In response to a question from Dan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Jackson called technological innovation “the only way forward.” There will be obstacles, mostly political, Jackson said, but not as great as some may think. Many environmental issues are more bipartisan than the current polarized political climate indicates, Jackson said. Although politicians disagree vehemently on the national stage about how to handle environmental problems, they are generally quick to address environmental crises facing constituents in their districts. “I don’t really see much division on the local level, Jackson said. “All politics is local. All environmental issues are local.”

Before she left for meetings with employees at Silicon Valley tech companies, Jackson expressed hope for a future in which environmental issues become more populist and African-American and Latino communities in particular “pick up the mantle” to play a larger role in local and national debates.