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Watt Webb receives National Academy of Sciences Hollaender Award for biophysics


Cornell biophysicist Watt W. Webb, whose imaging techniques have revolutionized how scientists see into biological dynamics and structures, has been honored by the National Academy of Sciences with the Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics.

Announced Jan. 20, the award cites Webb, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor in Engineering and professor of applied and engineering physics, for "pioneering the applications of rigorous physical principles to the development of optical tools that have broadly impacted our ability to examine biological systems."

Webb, who was honored at Cornell in 2008 with a symposium marking his 80th birthday, is best known for inventing fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (with Elliot Elson) and later, multiphoton microscopy (MPM) with Winfried Denk. The MPM technology allows, for example, cellular DNA to be imaged in 3-D resolution with limited damage to the cells.

In a collaborative bioengineering research partnership with physicians and researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College, Webb is now trying to further engineer the reaches of these technologies by developing medical multiphoton microscopic endoscopy. By taking advantage of the body's natural fluorescence to provide microscopy images of living tissue in real time and without dyes, Webb's images acquired via medical MPM endoscopes can help surgeons find and diagnose cancerous tissues during operations, augmenting such traditional diagnostic tools as fixed and stained biopsy images.

Webb came to Cornell as an associate professor of engineering physics in 1961. His six-decade career has spanned many areas, from solid-state physics -- during which time he led creation of the first stable superconducting magnet, of the type still used today in magnetic resonance imaging -- to biomolecular dynamics, neuroscience, molecular biology and DNA sequencing.

Webb will receive the Hollaender award, which comes with a $20,000 prize, April 25.