An interview with Roger Wakimoto, NCAR’s new director

In February, former EOL director Roger Wakimoto got a new job title: NCAR director. Although Roger is a relative newcomer to NCAR, joining EOL in 2005, his extensive ties to the organization date back to the 1970s, when he participated in a field project on wind shear as a graduate student. He has also served on the UCAR Board of Trustees and chaired the University Relations Committee.

Roger Wakimoto

A geophysicist with expertise in tornadoes, thunderstorms, and other types of severe weather, Roger was a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, for 22 years, including four years as department chair. In EOL, he oversaw a comprehensive survey of instrumentation and was a principal investigator on VORTEX2, the largest tornado field study ever conducted. Most recently, he oversaw NCAR’s Workforce Management Plan.

Roger held a town hall meeting (watch webcast) on February 24 at the Mesa Lab, and another at Center Green the following day, during which he laid out his initial plans and priorities as director. In March, Staff Notes caught up with Roger to chat about his new role.

Staff Notes:  What attracted you to the director position?

Roger: Many people I talked to while I was at UCLA said something that I believe in, which is that NCAR is a flagship. The community thinks it’s very special, and a lot of other disciplines wish they had an equivalent to NCAR. There’s so much activity going on here. I’m glad to be part of that.

Staff Notes: What qualities do you bring to the position?

Roger: I think I have the skills that are needed for this job. I’m an effective leader and I have a vision. It’s very important that I’m also a good listener. I’ve had a lot of experience through chairing a major department that was scientifically diverse, being EOL director for four and a half years, and being an accomplished scientist.

Staff Notes: Do you see any advantages or disadvantages to being an internal hire?

Roger: The advantage is that I can hit the ground running because I’m familiar with what’s going on. The disadvantage to being an internal hire is that you get a very short honeymoon period. Everyone expects that I already know NCAR really well and don’t need to be left alone for a month or two to get my feet on the ground. I think my honeymoon was over at 8:05 a.m. on the first day.

But that’s OK. I didn’t take the job just to sit around and observe. I do understand things about the institution and have a vision of what I’d like to do.

Staff Notes: Tell us about that vision.

Roger: I shared many things with staff during the town hall meetings. For example, I talked about the supercomputing center being the highest priority. Staff diversity is very important. Nested regional climate modeling is something that has risen to the top of the scientific agenda. I would also add climate services and the atmospheric and societal impacts of megacities. These are just a subset of things that I think the institution should emphasize.

Staff Notes: What do you think are some of NCAR’s most important accomplishments in recent years?

Roger: I would say without hesitation that the two biggest accomplishments of the past several years are the Gulfstream V and the IPCC work resulting in a Nobel Peace Prize. Winning a Nobel Prize is huge, and the G-V was a coup. Not only did we acquire the aircraft, but it’s operational and has participated in several important field experiments.

Staff Notes: What challenges does NCAR face?

Roger: We’ve had some tough budgetary times and that’s certainly put stress on the institution. I’ve made a commitment to tour the entire center—all the labs and divisions—to meet with people, and to continue to do this, meeting with everyone at least once a year. I’m very committed to having an ongoing dialogue so that I feel I’m plugged into what staff are thinking and their morale.

Staff Notes: How did you originally get interested in atmospheric science?

Roger: I was always interested in severe weather. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Ted Fujita when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He was known as “Mr. Tornado” and created the F-Scale [the leading scale for rating tornado intensity and damage]. He introduced me to fieldwork, and at that same time I was introduced to NCAR since it supported some of the field projects I was involved with. Even though I was at UCLA for 22 years, I was always a huge admirer of what NCAR provided to the community and to me. I don’t think I would have accomplished as much as I have scientifically had it not been for the resources and, in my case, the facilities, that NCAR provided. It was so critical to my successful research career at UCLA.

Staff Notes: Speaking of your own research, we hear that you plan to rejoin the VORTEX2 field campaign this spring, documenting storms across the Great Plains.

Roger: I want people to understand the reason I’m doing this. I understand that I’m the NCAR director, but I got into this field because I’m a scientist. I’m excited and stimulated by discovery. I think that a lot of the scientific staff appreciate the fact that I want to maintain a scientific career and not just be a manager. I also understand that I have huge responsibilities running NCAR, and I never will be derelict in that. To be a good scientist and a good manager is a huge strength. I also realize that when I come back from VORTEX, most of what I do in research will probably be late at night and on the weekends [laughing].

Staff Notes: What do you do outside work to unwind?

Roger: There are two things I do to unwind. One is research. The other is that I have learned over my career to shut down when I leave the office. You cannot be thinking about work 24 hours a day. This allows me to think more clearly when I come back the next day.

Staff Notes: Anything else you want staff to know?

Roger: I’m very concerned about interacting and working with staff. What makes NCAR great is not me—it’s our staff. It’s my job to help them excel.