D.C. Boot Camp: Stanford grad students do basic training in the nation's capital

Turning environmental research into world-changing action requires intimate knowledge of how Washington works. Twenty-four Stanford PhD students pounded the pavement to learn more.

Rob Jordan Graduate student Diego Román walks past the White House during Stanford's DC Boot Camp.

Graduate student Diego Román walks past the White House during Stanford's DC Boot Camp.

Washington, D.C.'s famed cherry blossoms bloomed several weeks early this year – right on time for Diego Román. 

The Stanford doctoral student was visiting the capital last month as part of an intensive "boot camp" organized by Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment that promised an in-the-trenches perspective on advancing research through policy development, public service careers and network building.

"This idea that I'm meeting with policymakers in Washington is intimidating," said Román, an Ecuadorian immigrant whose research looks at how to improve K-12 environmental textbooks. Román had come to Washington to learn how climate change education is created and implemented through public policy. The irony of the premature cherry blossoms – which may have been brought on by global warming – wasn't lost on him.

Román had good reason to be nervous about his upcoming meetings. By the second day of the boot camp, he had met with a White House science policy analyst, a powerful National Parks Service official and the Ecuadorian ambassador. Hoping for a brief conversation about science curriculum in his native land, Román found himself in an hour-and-a-half-long discussion with the ambassador and her three top secretaries. "Suddenly, I was with all these people who I would never have a chance to talk with in my normal life."

Román had the opportunity through the Rising Environmental Leaders Program at the Woods Institute. The program helps students hone their leadership and communications skills to maximize the impact of their research. The four-day boot camp was held in partnership with the Bing Stanford in Washington Program.

Román wasn't the only one going through a kind of culture shock. For the boot camp, 24 PhD students and postdoctoral scholars from a range of disciplines traded sandals for suits and books for bills. They listened to speakers from various agencies and organizations, sat in on hearings and navigated the city to meet with movers and shakers in their research fields. Before long, they were practically drowning in acronyms and multi-billion-dollar budget figures.

Key lessons learned

Engage the public as stakeholders rather than "information sponges," they were told. Avoid controversial words in a report title. Tell potential employers about what makes you stick out, whether it's winemaking or ballroom dancing.

Lesson One for Shannon Randolph: schmoozing is a highly prized skill in Washington. Randolph, an environmental anthropology researcher, was thankful that she decided to approach the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service at a happy hour event in the Capitol. "I just went up and said who I was. He immediately pulled us into the hallway and talked to us for 20 minutes." Randolph also struck up a conversation with someone outside the Supreme Court who turned out to be the president of the American Medical Association, and she also met a powerful Bureau of Land Management official.

Joel Weitzman's takeaway: Congressional staffers are overworked and don't have time for long-winded scientific explanations. "It's not until you get here and meet them that you realize how spread thin they are," the environmental engineering researcher said.

Speaking at an informal dinner during the boot camp, Stanford Woods Institute Co-Director Buzz Thompson urged the doctoral candidates to consider a wide gamut of policy-related careers from government consultant to nonprofit advocate. Thompson pointed out that there are 32 members of the House of Representatives who hold doctorate degrees among 178 lawyers, a boat captain, a toll collector and a host of other occupations. He also pointed out that anyone wanting to work in Washington should plan on glacial progress. "Nothing happens very fast. Prepare for frustration in the policy world."

Denisse Varela had already tasted frustration. The former environmental lawyer came to Washington with visions of starting a think tank to expand the work of her nonprofit "Green Border," which teaches teenagers living near the Mexico-U.S. border about the area's unique environmental issues. A policy expert at the Brookings Institution told Varela she needed more years of experience before pushing forward with her plan. "That's a bit disheartening, but good to know," Varela said.

Words of encouragement

David Hochstetler, a groundwater hydrology researcher, met with a USAID official who urged him to get more international experience and do more project research before applying for a job with the agency. The busy official spoke with Hochstetler for almost an hour and offered to connect him with other hydrologists. "That was encouraging," Hochstetler said of the experience.

Yaniv Scherson plans to tailor his wastewater-to-energy pitch to politicians' regional interests. "That is a point I would not have thought about as an academic and a researcher."

Grasping the Washington mindset can be especially challenging for academics and scientists, said David Blockstein, senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment. Blockstein met with Román in the council headquarters to discuss climate change education and offer a warning about politicians. "When you come in, they start to push you out the door. Then you say it's about the environment, and they push you faster. Then you say it's about science and you're already out the door." Still, Blockstein encouraged Román to consider a policy career and to submit journal papers and grant applications in the meantime.

Before Román and his fellow boot camp participants headed back to Palo Alto, they heard some good news. Stanford Woods Executive Director Debbie Drake Dunne announced that the institute is planning to open a Washington office in 2013. "We're committed to helping you leverage your research for maximum impact," Dunne said. "Policymakers at the local to international level need your information to guide environmental decision-making."

Román could see himself visiting the office for assistance some day. By the end of his stay in Washington, he was asking locals for apartment-hunting advice.

Rob Jordan is the communications Writer for the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Rob Jordan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, (650) 721-1881, rjordan@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service, (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu