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Local View: We pass on the wisdom of those whose shoulders we stand on

In the summer of 1997, I received a phone call while working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“This is Watt Webb,” said the person on the other end, and we talked about family issues, his love of sailing and how his grandson likes playing soccer. After a while he asked if I would be interested in joining his laboratory at Cornell University as a research fellow. I accepted, and in late November, I took a road trip to Ithaca, N.Y., with all my belongings in my old Mustang and with hopes and apprehension on my mind.

I had the privilege of working closely with Webb — the man, the mentor and the eminent scholar — for six years. He often would stop by the laboratory to see what I was up to and would ask so many questions to satisfy his curiosity and love of knowledge.

As a strong believer in interdisciplinary research, Webb attracted chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers and physicians. He would meet with his students regularly to talk about what he loved most, science, whether in late afternoons or during our weekly meetings. He never shied away from a scientific confrontation and letting us know exactly what he thought. That was a bit too much for some students who mistook it as a personal attack. They could not have been more wrong.

On one fateful morning, I was called to his office to discuss my first draft of a manuscript since joining his group. He basically tried to trash everything I wrote. He is a member of the National Academy of Science, and I owed him a proper counter-argument at every corner. Near the end of our discussion, we basically were shouting at each other. On my way out, he handed me the draft with his comments and reminded me, “Science is built up of facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” It was a quote from a French physicist and mathematician, and it hanged prominently in his office. A lesson learned.

Leaving his office, I felt awful for arguing with my mentor whom I admired tremendously. Yet, Webb never took our disagreement personally or as a sign of disrespect. Status and ego aside, he believed that no one has a monopoly on knowledge or scientific reasoning in our search for the truth. The manuscript was soon published and many followed.

Webb encouraged his students to be independent scientists and spared no expenses to send them to national and international conferences as a means for their professional growth. He often would invite all of us for a dinner at his home. His wife, Page, a painter, was a perfect and most generous hostess.

Webb would call me one day to his office to discuss my plans. While he wanted me to stay as long as I wanted, he believed it was not the best for my career. Soon I was offered a faculty position at Pennsylvania State University.

Webb and I stayed in touch, whether by phone conversations, personal visits or emails. When Page passed away in 2010, Webb was hit very hard by this tremendous loss. I would remind him of his resilience and his love for science, but he wanted none of it. His health started deteriorating soon after that.

A few years ago, Webb was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and moved to New York City to be closer to his sons. At the age of 87 he lives in assisted living somewhere in the Big Apple. Every now and then, he has received flowers from someone he does not remember. He also received a book with the following dedication, “To Watt Wetmore Webb — a mentor, a pre-eminent scholar and a man with the utmost integrity.” He does not remember who I am, but I never forgot what he meant to me.

We strive to follow the footsteps of giants like Watt Webb and their academic ideals. We pass it on to our own students. These noble pursuits in higher education can be challenging sometimes, but we try for the sake of the next generations and the shoulders that we stand on.

 

Ahmed A. Heikal is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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