Michael Webb joins Princeton, seeks better molecular models

Wednesday, Jan 22, 2020
by Scott Lyon

Michael A. Webb has joined the Princeton faculty as an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, bringing expertise in modeling molecular interactions important to health and energy.

Webb is particularly interested in constructing theoretical models that efficiently capture essential, small-scale physics.

"It's important to be able to connect things to real-world applications," Webb said. "In order to make the connections to experiment, you need to leverage these computationally efficient models. You don't always have the capability to simulate everything at the atomic scale at the length and time scales that are important to experiment."

Some of Webb's past work includes advances in the fundamental science of lithium-ion batteries, widely used by the technology industry, and geochemical isotope effects, which geologists use to understand the dynamics of rock, air and water.

Webb comes to Princeton from the University of Chicago, where he was a postdoctoral researcher from 2016 to 2019. He obtained his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, where he studied chemical engineering while working in a theoretical chemistry laboratory under the direction of professor Thomas F. Miller III. The disciplines of chemistry and chemical engineering often approach similar problems with different perspectives, according to Webb. Having experience in both disciplines has allowed him to see how expertise from one domain can be relevantly applied to problems of interest in another.

"I've straddled both sides," he said.

Early in his career, as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student, Webb was drawn to the elements of computer programming that are essential to molecular simulation. "It involves a lot of writing code and debugging. That's what you do on a daily basis. I liked it and I stuck with it."

As he begins to advise graduate students of his own, Webb said he will emphasize strong foundational skills in simulation and statistical mechanics. Researchers who have a mastery of fundamental aspects of the underlying chemistry and physics of engineering questions are better able to attack more complex problems. "We're all eager to go and study the most complex system to begin with," he said, "but that's not the place to start."

Webb grew up in Reno, Nevada, and later moved to California to attend the University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate. Apart from the University he spends his time with his wife Allison and their pets (two cats and a rabbit); trains for all-purpose fitness (he ran the 2018 Chicago Marathon); and follows Bay Area sports teams, especially the San Francisco 49ers. Webb began advising graduate students in January and will teach Thermodynamics (CBE 246) in the spring 2020 term.