AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst biophysicist Jenny Ross has won one of the top national honors in her field, the 2013 Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award, from the Biophysical Society of Rockville, Md. It is given to a woman who has achieved prominence for “substantial contributions to science,” while showing very high promise for ideas and leadership in the early stages of her biophysical research career.
Ross is one of five researchers to be honored during a symposium at the society’s 57th annual meeting in February in Philadelphia. In addition to receiving separate awards and honoraria, each will give a research presentation. Established in 1984, the award honors the memory of Margaret Dayhoff, former president of the society, professor of biophysics and director of research at the National Biomedical Research Foundation.
Ross is an assistant professor in physics at UMass Amherst and nationally known for her study of microtubules, which are strong, hollow tubes about 10-100 micrometers in length and 25 nanometers in diameter that provide structure to a vast variety of cells from plants to humans. “In plants, they direct cellulose deposition to give plants rigidity,” she explains. “They make up the tails of swimming sperm and the cilia in your intestines.”
Without microtubules to provide support, developing nerve axons cannot grow, and adult axons cannot be maintained. Without stabilized microtubules, nerve cells retract, causing neuromuscular diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or diseases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Finally, microtubules are crucial in arranging materials inside cells during the two types of division, mitosis and meiosis. “When that process goes awry, cells can turn into cancerous tumors,” Ross says.
She adds that she is thrilled to have won one of the most influential of professional research awards in her field. “I’ve been a member of the Biophysical Society since I was a young graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. My earliest memories of these meetings include standing at my poster with famous microtubule biophysicists coming by to talk to me. These were people whose papers I had read in my pursuit to understand the biology and the physical nature of microtubules. I was always shocked that they would come to talk to the graduate students standing at their posters. That down-to-earth, collegial attitude is what I like about biophysicists.”
Finding a female biophysicist mentor who had herself won the Dayhoff award while Ross was in graduate schools provided crucial leadership and inspiration to her, she adds.
“I was so excited and honored when I found out that I won the Dayhoff Award this year that I had to read the e-mail three times to be sure, then I shed some tears. This award means more to me than just an accolade to rack up and put on my wall. This istheaward for young female investigators, the one that shows you are doing better than average and fulfilling your promise.”
Ross plans to take her entire family to the award conference in February. “It is especially important to me that my daughter Aurora will see me win this. I want her to realize that women can do science, and that you can get credit for your hard work in this field.”