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Mar 26 2017
by Elizabeth Robinson

Campus Women Who Inspire Us: Dr. Lauren J. Webb

By Elizabeth Robinson - Mar 26 2017
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I'm a biology major, but I've never been closer to switching to chemistry than when I had Dr. Lauren J. Webb as my teacher.

Dr. Lauren Webb began her position at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She now works as an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and serves as a Faculty Council Member Representing the UT Austin College of Natural Sciences (2016-2018). In 2008, she was awarded a Burroughs Wellcome grant for her work in studying electrostatic fields that arise during protein-protein interactions. The mere mention of her name at an American Chemical Society meeting is often met with: “I love Dr. Webb! She's incredible!” Her research group’s website lists no fewer than 50 publications since 2005, and she remains an outstanding teacher of general and physical chemistry.

The Webb research group’s website states its overall goal as “…understand[ing] and manipulat[ing] the biological mechanisms of mesoscopic organization and interaction.” Quite a mouthful! But I can translate: the Webb group studies large biomolecules such as proteins and lipid bilayers and how they interact with other biomolecules. This can be anything from studying how proteins fold based on their amino acid sequence to observing how different biomolecules affect each other in living cells. Understanding such complicated systems is immensely important for the biomedical industry, which needs to know how living things work in order to provide healthcare services. To study these interactions, Dr. Webb uses an ingenious new technique which involves anchoring proteins to a solid surface and then testing how they react with unanchored proteins.

In addition to her research, Dr. Webb teaches several chemistry classes at UT Austin. In the fall of 2016, I had the honor of taking her Chemistry 301 Honors (CH301H) course. I have to say that it was one of the most worthwhile and inspirational courses I've ever taken. Dr. Webb was a remarkably honest, intelligent and kind woman as well as a superb lecturer. She is a true science communicator who employs humor and storytelling to explain complex concepts from the ground-up. In her class, I always felt that I was being challenged and learning something of monumental value. But don't take my word for it: here's what some of her other freshmen CH301H students had to say about their experience with her last semester: 

1. Jace K.

"...Dr. Webb was one of the most delightful teachers that I've had so far. Instead of teaching using the same methods that every chemistry professor at UT uses, she taught chemistry like a story. She took us step by step in how to build an atom, and then molecules. I think it's really great to see her and other female chemistry professors gain so much attention for their extraordinary teaching skills in a male dominated field. You could see in the way that she taught that she loved her field and what she did." 

2. Zoe D.

"Dr. Webb was incredibly inspiring to me. She taught us in a way that we felt like we could have discovered what Bohr, Shrödiner or Planck did. She forced us to figure out the laws of chemistry by asking the right questions. She made sure that even though chemistry's history was dominated by dead white guys, it no longer had to be that way. Webb, herself, was a shining example of how women with incredible minds are impacting the field."

3. Vishnu S.

"I think Dr. Webb was an amazing professor. In the class we took with her, she went well beyond just covering the material that we needed to know, but she explained a lot of the more complex details and derivations behind it in a way that felt engaging and accessible. I really admire the dedication she has not only to teaching the material, but to going above and beyond and making sure we really understood chemistry. Not to mention the amount of care she puts into her research." 

4. Molly S.

"Dr. Webb was incredibly inspiring to me because not only was she a remarkably brilliant and successful woman in science, but she was one of the best teachers I can imagine. I've always been interested in education and how to make it more effective and engaging, and she nailed it. Instead of just teaching us subjects like models of the atom or hybridization, she really taught us chemistry and how to think like a scientist. She never asked us to just take something to be true at her word; she always explained WHY and HOW and the IMPORTANCE and IMPLICATIONS of everything she taught us. Her class didn't just teach me chemistry, it made me a better chemist and a better scientist and a better student."

The bond between student and teacher is mutual: Dr. Webb states that her greatest accomplishment is serving as a mentor for her students and postdocs. 

Dr. Webb would be an inspirational professor in any era, but she exists in an era where many debate the role of women in advanced professions. She enjoys the freedom, flexibility and control of academic science, which allows her to dedicate time to both her job and her family. Dr. Webb is living proof of women’s future in the sciences, but she says that her advice goes out to all future scientists, male and female alike:

If you are doing anything even the slightest bit difficult or interesting, you are not going to be able to do it alone. You are going to need strong mentors who are willing to guide you and help you along the way. Find people you admire, whom you aspire to be similar to, and then find out how those people achieved what they have... find out what drives your curiosity, and then follow that. Everything else will be easy if you are working on problems that fascinate you.

Because of the increasing role that women play in professional fields — both science and others —your college is bound to have women who inspire you in your everyday life. 

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Elizabeth Robinson - University of Texas at Austin

I'm a sophomore at UT Austin majoring in Dean's Biology. I've loved writing since elementary school and published my first novel in high school. I love reading, writing (obviously), foreign languages, doggos, martial arts, anthropology, theater, and watching far too much YouTube. I dream of being a fiction author and geneticist after graduate school, hopefully combining my two loves to change the world. Follow me on Twitter @MetokaPublishi1, Instagram as BlackPage13, or (best option) visit my website, www.MetokaBooks.com!

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