AMHERST, Mass. – Physicist Jennifer Ross of the University of Massachusetts Amherst recently won a four-year, $800,000 INSPIRE award from the National Science Foundation to uncover and establish the laws for the fundamental workings of cells, which form the basis of tissues in plants, animals and humans.
“Understanding the primary basis of how cells develop and organize can have broad implications for agriculture, energy and technology,” Ross says. She will partner with cellular biophysicist Margaret Gardel of the University of Chicago in the research, which they say offers “endless, yet measureable,” broad and positive possibilities for discovery in both life and physical sciences.
Their scientific goal is to discover the universal physical laws governing the organization of proteins and organelles inside cells. With NSF support, Ross has built a super-resolution microscope that allows her and colleagues to see, far more clearly than before, molecules 100 times smaller than are visible using a traditional light microscope. They fluorescently tag molecules and watch proteins that control cell processes such as cell division, for example, interact in real time.
As she explains, unlike physical materials such as metals that usually exist in a solid, liquid or gas phase based on whichever requires the lowest energy (the equilibrium state), living things contain active components that drive them far from equilibrium. But the rules governing biological materials and component interactions are not well understood. Living materials have nanoscale protein enzymes, or “motors,” that use energy to push and pull the components, such as actin and microtubules, fibers that act as a cell’s “bones and muscles” and play key roles in division and motion.
By methodically adjusting variables such as concentration, pressure and component volume in experiments using purified biological proteins in controlled biological systems, Ross and Gardel plan to reveal the “phase” or “state” of the system. In water, for example, the phase can be solid, liquid or gas. For biological matter, the phase can be a particular organization or arrangement of its filaments.
“By mapping the phases, we will understand what temperature, pressure, volume, number and level of activity leads to which organizations in cells. Further, we will know how to change from one phase to another to allow us to understand dynamic processes, such as stem cell differentiation or cell division,” Ross says.
“This research is important to discover how the cell rapidly reorganizes its interior body to respond to its exterior environment,” she adds, “how it goes through cell division or differentiates into a new cell type. The project will also shed new light on the physics descriptions of systems that use energy, which is still an open, ever-evolving challenge for modern physics.”
NSF’s INSPIRE awards program was established to address some of the most complicated and pressing scientific problems found at the intersection of traditional disciplines. It is intended to encourage investigators to collaborate to submit bold, exceptional proposals of such scope they may not fit within traditional funding avenues. Ross says employing the concepts from physics to address open problems in biology, as she and Gardel are doing, falls squarely in this interdisciplinary problem-solving category.
As women in physics, Ross and Gardel see themselves as role models for women and minorities in the sciences and they both take an active role in physics education and mentoring students in high school and at the college, graduate and postdoctoral levels. They are also committed to providing professional education for K-12 teachers and college professors.
“My female students have especially expressed how important and inspirational it is to them that I am a young woman with a career and a spouse and two kids, while I am being successful at this job,” says Ross. “I am currently looking into new avenues for mentoring at a broader level. I recently started an advice blog for women in academic science, although many men say they read it and use the advice, too: womanofscience.wordpress.com.”
“I am also actively participating in UMass Amherst’s College of Natural Science’s effort to support women in STEM from undergraduate and graduate through to full professor level by instilling self-esteem and enabling leadership opportunities for women in the college.”