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Watt W. Webb

Watt W. Webb's history, present and future is one that reflects the pioneering and tenacious spirit of the world's most gung-ho physicists. Growing up in Missouri in the Great Depression and stymied by a lung disease called empyema, Watt didn't begin school until he was 9 years old. He attended the famous Mission School in New Mexico, and spent his summers wrangling horses. In 1938, he "escaped" from the Southwest to rejoin his family on the Connecticut shore only to have a hurricane destroy their home shortly thereafter. When they finally returned to Missouri, he worked in his family's post-Depression bank, "learning some business along the way," he says.

Watt W. Webb
Watt W. Webb

Intrigued by sailing, Webb yearned for a career in naval engineering when he enrolled in MIT for his undergraduate studies at age 15. But after seeing "hundreds of ship design blueprints," he recounts, he switched to a major in engineering administration, and raced MIT sailboats on the Charles River and then taught summer sailing in a girls' camp. In the end, Webb thinks he made the right choices. "My experiences led me to pursue broad explorations," he says.

Indeed, Webb's career is a web of extensive research opportunities in many seemingly disconnected areas, from metallurgy and superconductivity to neuroscience and biological tissue florescence and laser optics. Ultimately, laser applications tie Webb's diversity of innovations together. He has, after all, pioneered via lasers, and has earned the credentials to show for it.

At 82, Webb is the Samuel B. Eckert Professor in Engineering and a Professor of Applied Physics at Cornell University. He is the recipient of the Rank Prize in Opto-electronics, the Biological Physics Prize of the APS, and, most recently, the Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics of the National Academy of Sciences. He is also a Fellow of the APS, the Biophysical Society, and the AAAS, and Founding Fellow of the American Institute of Biological and Medical Engineers. And he holds elected memberships in the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Science.

His rapture with lasers came early in his career at Cornell. After MIT, Webb engaged in metallurgical research, where his targets were very hot liquids: "Measuring the temperature of plasmas in the same way as measuring the temperature of a star," he remembers, led him back to grad school at MIT to learn chemical physics. After his doctorate, Webb returned to the industrial arena as an employee of Union Carbide Research Laboratories, eventually advancing to the role of Assistant Director of Research. In 1961, he was recruited by Cornell's School of Applied Physics to teach dislocation theory of crystal defects, focusing on the realm of "solving seemingly impossible problems," which led him to lasers. "The minute someone says something is impossible," he claims, is when he jumps into action.

Among Webb's laser-based research discoveries are a number of non-invasive biological tissue imaging tools utilizing laser excitation of the natural florescence of molecules and cells. He and his colleagues invented Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy to observe the dynamics of proteins in DNA, revealing partition of the double helix, using an argon laser. Later, he and his group invented Multiphoton Microscopy for laser excited detection and imaging of serotonin in the brain. Recently, Webb and his team utilized lasers to invent a method now being developed into an efficient DNA sequencing system at Pacific Biosciences, Inc.

Today, his major project centers on applying his 1990 invention of multi-photon laser scanning microscopy to enable surgeons to "image living tissue harmlessly and diagnose its structures and malignancies," he explains. Webb is partnering with other medical researchers to develop laser illuminated imaging systems that involve installing optical lenses in <5mm diameter endoscopes, or using 1mm diameter Gradient Refractive Index needle (GRIN lens) probes to serve as miniature endoscopes for real-time reconnaissance of tissues deep in organs such as the lungs. These Medical Multiphoton Microscopic Endoscopes employ lenses inside to detect and identify the florescence and resonant harmonic emissions by tissues, thus allowing scientists to compare healthy and cancer cells by the wavelengths in images created by the light they emit. Although this is still in the prototype development phase, Webb reports that many diverse medical and veterinary applications here are already succeeding. This is no surprise - after all, at some point, someone probably told him it was impossible.


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