Donna Webb: Missing Out on a Genius Lunch Buddy
Donna Webb and I pass each other once a month and we are perpetually going to have to grab lunch. She’s one of my favorite people to run into – that crazy smart person who is always happy to see you. If we were both heading in the same direction, we’d wait for each other and ride the elevator to grab a few extra minutes to chat. Donna and I had a million of these 10 minute ‘fast talks’ in elevators or doorways. Conversations about how I could help advertise and promote her programs for underrepresented minorities. Conversations about wellness, about how I did fundraising, about balancing editing versus teaching. Invariably, one of us had to run off and we would agree we had have to have coffee. Even better, we could grab lunch.
Donna and I were hired about the same time and her lab is a few floors below mine. We share similar techniques and have published a couple papers together on a shared grant. I quickly realized Donna is the exactly the person you want to go to with grant or paper reviews. She knows precisely how to answer a question without frills. When you get reviews back and it seems like you have to spend six months building a new way to measure something, everyone needs a Donna to reality check you and tell you there is a short, powerful way to answer the question.
Donna’s lab characterizes imperceptibly small changes in neuronal anatomy during development that are critical to understanding how chemical signaling builds brain structure. More recently, we’d begun to make some headway into devices and chemical goo we could put together that would make cells behave more like they do in the human body. I’d tapped Donna a few times to help with friend and fundraising and she was amazing. She’d talk to worried parents and grandparents about critical periods when the brain developed and inspire hope. Being able to convey excitement about science and create trust is a rare skill. I fangirl over those who do it well. I fangirled over Donna a lot.
Donna would tell me I was hilarious and try to sit next to me at group meetings because I made them fun. I liked sitting next to her because she had the giggle of a toddler and it made me laugh. For 14 years we talked about how we were going to have lunch. I should say that for me, having lunch was a big deal. I don’t tell people we should have lunch. In rank order, I’d rather have lunch with Ryan Gosling, trainees, community members, support staff, (a long list of others in here), feral animals, sales reps, feral sales reps, folks who write comments on my LinkedIn posts, university lawyers, followed by faculty.
I thrive on people who are different than I am. And somewhere along the line, I came to view myself as too busy to have lunch with anyone, even the folks I really wanted to talk to. My lunches with trainees got pushed to the side in lieu of granola bars and yogurt. Lunch seemed like something worth giving up to be a scientist and a mom. But I meant it when I said I wanted to talk more with Donna. Authentic and without guile, her strengths in teaching coupled with mine in outreach were well matched. We had already published together, but it seemed I was always writing a paper, she was writing a grant or vise versa and we kept promising to catch up soon. We never did. On May 15th, Donna died suddenly at the age of 50. We never had lunch.
Go to lunch with the people you like.
NWasp localizes to spines in excitatory synapses from Wegner et al. Donna Webb, the corresponding author.