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Q&A with Chemist Lauren Webb

Q&A with Chemist Lauren Webb
Lauren Webb, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, arrived at The University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2008.
Lauren Webb, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry
Dr. Lauren Webb

Lauren Webb, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, arrived at The University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 2008. She was awarded a Teaching Excellence Award by the end of that school year. Insight sat down with her recently to discuss her decision to come to Texas, her thoughts on teaching Physical Chemistry, and the challenge of making thermodynamics relevant.

Where you choosing between The University of Texas at Austin and somewhere else, and if so, why did you decide to come here?

I did have a choice, and I came here for a few reasons. For one, this is an awesome department. There’s a very strong emphasis on physical chemistry, and on biophysical chemistry in particular, which is my area, and there are just so many people here who it’s a good idea for me to be around. The scale of things is important too. It’s a very big department, and a huge university, and the kind of resources that comes with that size is amazing. I do very equipment-heavy research, and at another, smaller school, I might have had to acquire a lot of equipment for my own lab, which would have been very expensive. I don’t need to do that here. There are so many facilities I can join or use, and labs with which I can collaborate.

It’s unusual for such a new faculty member to win a teaching award. How did you prepare?

I relied a great deal on help from other faculty in the department here. Most of the people in the physical chemistry divison have taught the course at some point, and across the board people in the department were generous with their notes, their previous exams, problem sets, their time. They sat down with me and talked about lecture strategies, about what the students will come into the class knowing and not knowing, about things I never would have even thought of, like how much math review to do, for instance. Amazingly enough, I also had notes from when I took this class in college.

Do you have a style or method that’s unique?

I don’t think so. In a lecture course like this, where there’s so much material to cover, there’s not a huge amount of room to be too clever. What I’ve tried to do, as a teacher, is find ways to make it clear to my students that this is relevant science. When I was learning a lot of this material as an undergraduate, it wasn’t really clear to me why I needed to know it. The three laws of thermodynamics, for instance, were taught to me in a kind of purely historical way, in terms of pistons, balloons full of inert gases, heat transfers. What’s so cool to me about thermodynamics, though, is that it’s both historical and entirely relevant. It was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries to explain observations about molecular systems before the concept of molecules had even been developed.  So it's a science that is totally based on empirical observation, without the aid of all the understanding we now have, but it’s never been shown to be wrong. And you can use it to understand extremely complex systems—proteins, DNA, entire cells, entire populations—that are too complex to really grasp at a molecular or atomistic scale.

Are your lectures as tech-heavy as your research? Or are you old school?

I’m old school. I hope my students are learning by watching me work through a problem, and by taking good notes and making sense themselves of what they were taught. I also try to be as accessible as possible. I put my office hours at good times, and make my TAs have convenient office hours. I always meet with students if they can’t make it to office hours, and I respond to emails quickly. I think it’s really important to make sure that students’ questions are addressed as soon as possible, and that no confusion or misunderstanding can persist for too long.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Insight.
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Thursday, 23 September 2021

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