Celebrating and Honoring a Legacy Centered on Professional Development
By Genene Fisher
Dr. William (Bill) Lapenta left a lasting impression on many people. In addition to being a brilliant scientist and leader in the weather modeling community, he was known for being a remarkable mentor and passionate about helping others with their professional development. As Director of NCEP from 2013-2019, he wanted to broaden NCEP’s ability to train the next generation of scientists. In particular, he thought students could contribute by having hands-on experience at NCEP helping to advance Research to Operations (R2O) and mentors could help contribute to their career development.
Bill had the vision that NCEP needed its own program that focused not just on a student project, but also provided weekly seminars and professional development and housed the students in close proximity. Students would have the opportunity to hear from professionals on career advice, visit high-level NOAA officials, participate in social events, and present project results at the end of the summer. It was important to him that the students become a cohort and develop a network that would continue beyond the program.
Under Bill’s leadership, the first year of the NCEP Internship Program was launched in the summer of 2017 with 14 students. Bill was an integral part of the program. He would meet with the students early on and was eager to share his life story, encouraging them to follow their own path with excitement and passion and take calculated risks. Bill was honest about the challenges of balancing work and life, as well as the importance of taking care of yourself. He would meet with the students several times over the summer to check-in, see how things were going, and get feedback. Despite his busy schedule, Bill insisted on having an open door for students to stop by and they took advantage of his offer. He also joined them in social activities whether it was bowling after work or making them breakfast in the office. After the first year, it was clear that this program was going to be successful.
Bill knew the program was special and looked for ways to expand it. In the following years, it was expanded to the National Weather Service’s Meteorological Development Laboratory (MDL) and AWIPS Program Office. In 2019, Bill was also working with NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) to develop a similar internship program, building off best practices from the NCEP experience.
After Bill passed away in September 2019, NWS honored Bill’s legacy by renaming the NCEP program the William M. Lapenta Student Internship Program. Soon after, NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) joined in and there were a total of 23 students this past summer. As we look ahead, the program continues to expand as NESDIS Center for Satellite Applications and Research (STAR) has agreed to participate. In all, 68 students have now gone through the internship program. Feedback received from former students revealed this internship has been career-changing, providing hands-on experience in a government setting, expanding network, creating a peer cohort, refining their career goals, and building their self-confidence.
When looking at the students from the first three years, over ninety percent are working in NOAA mission fields or still pursuing their degrees. Several students have been hired to work at NOAA as meteorologists, Pathways students, and contractors. In 2020, NOAA designated that the participants of the Lapenta Internship Program are eligible for direct hire by NOAA under the Conservation Corps Act—which should now advance the hiring of the intern alumni at NOAA.
Bill was truly dedicated to encouraging and guiding early-career scientists. He gave numerous talks about leadership and navigating career paths, always ending his talks with “you’re all now part of my network.” Bill would make his mentees and students understand that to reach your goals, you must be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Renaming the intern program after Bill was an excellent way to honor him. His lessons live on through the program organizers, mentors, intern alumni, and anyone else who knew him. As we look to 2021, the program will be in its fifth year, continuing to grow stronger, as we keep Bill’s leadership lessons as our core principles.
Genene Fisher is Deputy Director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research