For 20 Stanford graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, spring break meant traveling through the rainy streets of Washington, D.C. to meet with some of the nation’s top environmental decision makers. The group represents this year’s cohort of Rising Environmental Leadership Program (RELP) fellows, who are learning how to apply their research to policy development, partnership building and public service. Based at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the program is in its fifth year helping young environmental leaders gain skills to maximize the impact of their research. 

TRAVELING TO THE NATION'S CAPITAL FOR D.C. BOOT CAMP

“D.C. Boot Camp” over spring break served as the cornerstone of the program – a trip to the nation’s capital where fellows met with congressional aides, representatives from federal agencies, executive leadership of influential think tanks, as well as experts from the nonprofit community and leading journalists.

The week included a suite of panel topics, where speakers discussed their professional roles and shared personal anecdotes about how they got to where they are today. During a panel on how think tanks influence policy, Phil Sharp, President of Resources for the Future, said that while there are many strategies to get science and analysis into decision-making, the ability to communicate science is key. At a lunchtime talk, Kit Batten, Climate Change Coordinator at USAID, addressed the group about the nexus of climate and development, and discussed her journey from ecology Ph.D. work to a career in the policy sphere. 

Fellows also heard from leading environmental nonprofits such as Earthjustice, the World Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. A media session at National Geographic with journalists from The New York Times, E&E News and the Huffington Post provided the group with realistic and frank insights into working with journalists to communicate science. 

Getting Advice FROM WHITE HOUSE TOP SCIENCE ADVISOR JOHN HOLDREN

The week closed with a talk by John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren joined the fellows for a discussion on the roles of science and public policy in his office and what it’s like to be an academic working in the policy world. 

Holdren stressed the importance of scientists engaging with the public policy process. “In doing so, you must be rigorous in your science, and be clear about what is rooted in science,” he said. In the policy sphere, Holdren emphasized that good communication skills are just as important as good science. “Whatever success I have had has been as much about my ability to communicate as about my scientific work,” he said. When asked how RELP fellows can help his office, Holdren advised that they improve their ability to tell stories about the ways science, technology and innovation can improve lives. “We want to know how your work will contribute to well-being around the world,” he said. 

Holdren’s speech echoed two recurring themes from the week: the importance of good communication skills to promote sound, science-based public policy, and the notion that a Ph.D. can be extremely valuable beyond academic settings. “I’ve basically wanted this job my whole adult life,” said Holdren, who holds advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and theoretical plasma physics from MIT and Stanford. “And to have this position with the most science–savvy president since Thomas Jefferson is an enormous privilege.”

AMPLIFYING RESEARCH WITH LESSONS LEARNED 

Back at Stanford, RELP fellows will engage in follow-up workshops on how they can use their new skills and lessons learned to translate their research to action. 

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to examine the breadth of how science and policy interact," said Jeremy Hsu, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology in the School of Humanities and Sciences. "Before the trip I knew that this field existed but I really didn't know how diverse it was. D.C. Boot Camp helped me see the range of opportunities possible."

“This week has been a game changer,” said Jennifer Hartle, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford’s Prevention Research Center in the School of Medicine. “Coming here changed my perspective about how to solve problems, and helped me see where my environmental health work fits into the overall environmental puzzle. I look forward to taking what I learned to push for solutions inside and outside of my department.”

More than 75 fellows have participated in RELP since its launch in 2010. Bios for the 2015 class are available on the program website. Applications for next year’s RELP will open in fall 2015.