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Biophysicist Watt Webb enters ninth decade, and his colleagues pay tribute

He has been a horse wrangler in New Mexico and a competitive sharpshooter in Massachusetts -- not to mention an engineer, a businessman and a skipper of very fast sailboats.

Now best known as the pioneering biophysicist behind fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS) and multiphoton microscopy (MPM) -- revolutionary imaging techniques invented in his laboratory -- Watt W. Webb, professor of applied physics and the Samuel B. Eckert Professor in Engineering was joined by colleagues and friends from around the world at a June 16 symposium marking his 80th birthday. (His actual birthday was Aug. 27, 2007).

Lectures at the daylong event spanned the disciplines influenced by Webb's research over the past six decades, from neuroscience and molecular biology to optics and solid-state physics.

In a brief autobiographical lecture, Webb confessed that his own academic history has been convoluted and "slightly screwy" -- but it has adhered, he said, to the phrase "tentanda via est" -- the Virgil quotation he found inscribed on a family heirloom ring and took as his personal motto.

"'To try is the way,' is one way to say it," he said. "'To experiment is the true way' -- another way to say it. I liked it so much that I sort of stuck with it."

Webb joined the Cornell faculty in 1961 from Union Carbide Corp., where as an industrial engineer he developed automated submerged arc welding processes, studied the theoretical strength of refractory transition metals and delved into superconductivity.

At Cornell his research broadened further: He developed FCS with chemist Elliot Elson in the 1970s and MPM with graduate student Winfried Denk in the 1980s. Currently leader of his own lab and co-director of the Developmental Resource for Biophysical Imaging Opto-Electronics, he is collaborating with researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College to use those and other imaging techniques in the diagnoses and treatment of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer's.

Speaking at the symposium, Denk, now director of the Department of Biomedical Optics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Germany, called working with Webb "a holistic experience."

"I don't think I could have gotten a better thesis adviser than Watt Webb -- I learned an enormous amount from him," said Denk. "I think his greatest skill is to create an atmosphere where independent thinkers feel comfortable and still work together. The breadth of his output -- not only in terms of scientific publications, but also in terms of the people that have come from the lab -- is quite consistent with that view."

Collaborating with colleagues across the disciplines has always been a vital part of his work, Webb said.

"The real pleasure of my life in science and in engineering [has been] in participating with all of the people I've been able to work with: colleagues, collaborators, students, postdocs -- and way back in the beginning, the people who were teaching me," he said.

"It's been great for me," he said of the symposium. Adding his thanks to colleagues and organizers, he broke into his signature wry grin: "But now my head's going to get too swelled up."

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