The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Serious About Science

Interdisciplinary researcher makes an early career splash in biophysics
  • UMass Amherst biophysicist Jennifer Ross is an expert on microtubules.

Ross is nationally known for her study of microtubules, strong, hollow microscopic tubes that provide    structure to a vast variety of cells from plants to humans.

Fresh from Philadelphia where she accepted the Biophysical Society’s Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award for “substantial contributions to science” and “showing very high promise in her early research career,” Jennifer Ross is ready to tackle the next big questions in biophysics.

An accomplished researcher who builds bridges between the disciplines of biology and physics in order to better understand what goes on inside living cells, Ross lays claim to several early career accolades, of which the Dayhoff Award is just the latest.

An assistant professor of physics, Ross is nationally known for her study of microtubules, strong, hollow microscopic tubes about 1-50 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. They make up the tails of swimming sperm and the cilia in your intestines," says Ross.

According to Ross, failure to create the correct microtubule networks results in a range of diseases and abnormalities including cancers, birth defects, neuromuscular diseases, and cell death. For example, microtubules play an important role in providing support for developing nerve tissues. New nerve axons need microtubules to grow, and mature ones need their support to maintain structure. Without healthy microtubules, nerve cells retract, contributing to neuromuscular diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s.

For her investigations into the role of microtubules for intracellular transport and their nanoscale motor proteins that act as shuttles, Ross won a prestigious Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. The award recognizes leaders in integrating science teaching and research at leading U.S. research universities.

Driven by a desire to better observe these tiny tubes in action and tapping Cottrell award funding, Ross built a special microscope to capture images of single microtubule motors and their associated proteins. The "single molecule total internal reflection fluorescence microscope," is so powerful it can look at single molecules inside live cells.

Ross has a history of “hands on” innovation. She built her first microscope with start-up funds received from UMass Amherst when she first came to campus. In 2009, she and Patricia Wadsworth, biology, were awarded $684,000 grant by the National Science Foundation to build a super resolution microscope called STORM (Stochastic Optical Reconstruction Microscopy) that is so sensitive it revealed molecules 10-100 times smaller than were visible by using traditional microscopy. STORM has immensely improved the ability of scientists to view nanoscale proteins, structures, and organelles inside cells.

Ross’s experience building custom microscopes inspired her course “Optics for Biophysics” which helps students acquire the innovative thinking and tinkering skills needed for modern, competitive scientific industries. The course is open to advanced undergraduate and graduate students from the life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering. Its curriculum covers basic optical design and a lab focuses on designing and building an optical microscope.

For all her standing as a serious scientist, Ross infuses fun into her work. When her group’s research was featured in the May 18, 2011 issue of Biophysical Journal, Ross rallied her students to create the cover art for the issue. They came up with a captivating Japanese dojo scene of microtubule dragons and sword-wielding ninja proteins, an allegory for the biological interplay of microtubules and a severing enzyme called Katanin.

Ross further encourages her students to have fun with science by making music videos. She and her students have produced science spoofs – short videos that transform popular-song lyrics into wacky exposés of the group’s research activities. “Our music videos are a way to have fun as a group and let off some steam. They also give us a funny venue to show off our microscopes and what they are capable of to a general audience,” she says.

Jennifer Ross came to campus in 2007 as the first member of a new biological physics group in the Department of Physics. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004 after having received a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Wellesley College in 2000. In addition to the Dayhoff Award and Cottrell Scholarship, she has earned the March of Dimes Foundation’s 2009 Basil O’Connor Starter Award, UMass Amherst’s 2009 Armstrong Fund for Science Award, the National Institutes of Health’s 2005 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, UCSB‘s 2001 Ferrando-Fithian Award for Outstanding Woman in Physics, and several others.

Karen J. Hayes '85