On becoming emeritus: Webb leaves extraordinary legacy in U-M education and fish biology
Professor Emeritus Paul W. Webb retired from active faculty status on December 31, 2014.
“Paul was relentless in his commitment to advance the interests of undergraduate students, both through his teaching but also his extended period of leadership in the Program in the Environment,” said Barry G. Rabe, J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and director, Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “This included an ongoing commitment to engage multiple and diverse disciplines in every possible way. It was never about what was convenient or comfortable for him but rather what would best contribute to the intellectual advancement and personal growth of students. He leaves an extraordinary legacy in Michigan undergraduate education.”
Webb received his B.S. in 1967 and his Ph.D. in 1971, both in zoology from the University of Bristol in Bristol, England. He joined the University of Michigan in 1972 as an assistant professor of natural resources. He was promoted to associate professor in 1976 and to professor in 1980. In 1986, he was appointed professor of biology; appointments as professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (2001) and professor of the environment (2008) followed. Webb served as interim dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment from 1995-96, and as associate dean in 1996. In 2002, he was appointed associate director of the Program in the Environment, a joint undergraduate degree program of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. He assumed the program’s directorship in 2010, serving in that capacity until 2013. He was granted emeritus status in December 2014.
In his research, Webb uses biomechanical principles to understand energetics, form and function, focusing on locomotion in fishes. The approach provides testable hypotheses and discriminatory experiments on key processes affecting the distributions, populations and assemblages of fishes.
A common theme is unsteadiness in both the motions of organisms themselves, in which locomotor behavior is dominated by linear and centripetal accelerations, and in the environments through which fishes move, characterized by turbulence. Early work emphasized energy flux and predator-prey interactions, which lead to explorations of maneuvering and stability, including design of engineered underwater vehicles. Most recently, research has focused on turbulence in flow of rivers, streams, lakes and how this physical factor shapes shorelines and shoreline fish communities. This research has direct application for shoreline management and restoration.
Frank Fish, professor of Biology, West Chester University of Pennsylvania had so much he wanted to say, he telephoned. “He's brilliant. He's been the leader in fish locomotion. He’s one of my best friends,” he said.
Fish was a graduate student at Michigan State University studying zoology. When he started studying the hydrodynamics of muskrat swimming in 1977, he read what he now calls the bible, Webb’s “beautiful monograph on fish hydrodynamics.” He keeps it prominently in view on his bookshelf.
“This was the one person who would understand what I was trying to do,” Fish remembered thinking. Long story short, he met with Webb and shortly thereafter, Webb joined Fish’s committee. Fish calls Webb a fantastic mentor. “I couldn't have accomplished what I did without him. He pushed me into the development of hydrodynamic models. He’s giving me direction to this day. I love him and his family.”
Fish added, “I have reviewed grants and articles for a number of people and Paul is by far one of the best writers and most thoughtful researchers I've ever met. He has a great sense of humor. He wasn't able to get me tickets for this weekend (U-M vs. Michigan State football game), but otherwise he has been marvelous,” he joked. Fish called Webb one of the leading researchers in the field who provided direction to researchers in fish locomotion. “We would have floundered around without him, pun intended.”
Webb’s research is intrinsically interdisciplinary so that many of his over 100 papers and additional abstracts and presentations reflect collaborations with faculty in fluid mechanics, applied mathematics and engineering in the College of Engineering at U-M as well as other institutions.
“Paul Webb has been an outstanding mentor and friend, honest and nurturing, always there when things get tough and there when it's time to celebrate,” said Aline Cotel, a U-M professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Our collaboration has allowed me to grow as an engineer and scientist in ways I could not have imagined.”
Webb places a high premium on undergraduate teaching. In addition to nearly 100 master’s and doctoral students, he has mentored a similar number of undergraduates performing research and various independent studies. He also included high school students in summer field research. A majority of mentees have been from groups underrepresented in STEM subjects. Webb’s dedication to undergraduate education is reflected in the classes he taught, including large enrollment lower-division undergraduate classes and field courses at the U-M Biological Station. He was active in curricular development through the first decade of the undergraduate Program in the Environment, especially seeking opportunities for experiential learning.
Corey Wellik, a Biology and Ecology of Fishes (EEB 486) student of Webb’s at the U-M Biological Station last summer, said, “Paul's passion for fish is such a big part of his personality, his students can’t help but be enthusiastic about it too. Paul and his class were some of the main contributors to what made my experience at the U-M Biological Station so unforgettable. I have never had a professor who, almost every day, made the effort to connect with each and every student. Paul has such a unique interest in his students and their passions outside of the classroom; we found we share a mutual love for poetry and he and I continue to stay in touch via email to exchange our writing. Paul was known to urge all his students to do our work ‘with alacrity!’ That slogan is now on our class shirts and in our memories with Paul; he really lives up to the phrase. I'm so happy to have gotten to know Paul as a professor and as a friend.”
Webb was firm believer that a liberal arts education provides the interdisciplinary foundation essential for understanding and addressing environmental issues. In particular, he paid special attention to the often underappreciated yet critical role of the arts and humanities in addressing anthropogenic problems of the human-dominated world.
Stoyna Novakova, another UMBS student, said, “Paul is the finest professor I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I first met Paul as a student at the U-M Biological Station and had the opportunity to work with him again later, as his teaching assistant. It doesn’t take long to realize you are in presence of someone great. Although I registered for his class to learn about The Biology and Ecology of Fishes, what I gained from the course went well beyond that; for instance, it helped me develop skills in writing and presenting.
“As a student, I remember thinking that Paul was amazing because he would buy the class ice cream after every class. Later, as his TA, I learned the real reason for the ice cream wasn’t just to keep the blood sugar levels high. Instead, it was a carefully chosen pastime that Paul utilized to ensure that classmates had the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with each other and, ultimately, create a better class atmosphere. Like ice cream, professors come in many flavors, but Paul is the best of the best.
“He made it possible that I actually looked forward to waking up at 8 a.m. to attend class! He typically interjects his British wit and humor – whether he is lecturing or telling you to “keep the bloody lead line down” in the field – there was hardly a dull moment,” said Novakova.
Dr. Laura Eidietis, a biology lecturer at U-M, who was a doctoral student of Webb’s, recalls graduate students often asking her, ‘You work with him? Wow. What’s that like?’ She would smile and reply, “Interesting.”
“Certainly, it has been interesting to work with a mentor and colleague with whom I can talk smack about football just before receiving back a draft with the general advice of ‘start over,’ worded as kindly as possible.
“Paul’s intellectual contribution and high standards have been crucial to my formation as a scientist and educator. More importantly, Paul’s generosity of spirit and commitment to students (both undergraduate and graduate) has permeated all our interactions. I was one of Paul’s last Ph.D. students in biomechanics, and he certainly did not need another. Nonetheless, Paul sent me a two-page, personal letter explaining why I should study biology at U-M. He then took off almost an entire day of work to show me around and talk to me when I visited.
“Paul has supported and valued all my professional and personal dreams, regardless of whether they aligned with his own research agenda or, sometimes, personal needs. When I needed money for my equipment, he found it, though I was studying tadpoles, not fish! When I needed to defend in order to take a job, he made it happen (despite a 104 degree fever). When I needed 15 letters of recommendation in order to move into three different jobs in six years, he wrote them all, and apparently did an awesome job of it. Due to an odd arrangement of offices, I heard Paul counseling many students, and I know this open-minded generosity extended to all his interactions with students. He constantly has worked to help students define, pursue and achieve their life goals.”
Webb will continue to work with young people, both within the university community and beyond, notably in experiential settings including research on turbulence. He plans to continue working on Professor John Kuwada’s project teaching annually at the Royal University of Phnom Penn while also working locally to help non-English-speakers develop language skills. Kuwada is with the U-M Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. He also anticipates working with shoreline communities in developing science-based management plans.
Compiled and edited by Gail Kuhnlein using University of Michigan source material.