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Biophysicist Jenny Ross’s leading-edge career comes from a creative blend of research, mentoring, and life. Photo by Jim Gipe, Pivot Media.
December 10, 2015

Totally Tubular

  • Amherst
Biophysicist Jenny Ross investigates networks that give structure to life

A builder of microscopes, Associate Professor of Physics Jenny Ross has also used her ingenuity and creativity to forge her own career in the sciences.

After studying physics and mathematics in graduate school, Ross was drawn to the array of possibilities in the field of biophysics. “I wanted to do something in a field that had lots of open questions,” she says, “and there are more open problems in biology than any other field.”

Ross now applies her physics expertise to discern the laws that are the basis of life: specifically how cells develop and organize. She has homed in on microtubules, intracellular filaments that give cells form and act as the infrastructure for protein transport.

Microtubules are long, straight cylindrical filaments made from tubulin protein.


Importantly, microtubules support developing nerve tissues—if tubules aren’t healthy, nerve cells retract, contributing to degenerative neuromuscular diseases like ALS. So understanding how they work is a high priority indeed.

Ross used start-up funds to build her first ’scope when she came to campus in 2007. The microscope is the TIRF (pronounced “turf”), or Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence microscope, powerful enough to capture images of single microtubule motors inside live cells. In 2009, she received an NSF grant to build a super-resolution microscope so sensitive that it reveals molecules 100 times smaller than would be visible with traditional light microscopy.

It’s easy to lose count of the many unique awards Ross receives that recognize the impact of her research as well as fund its future. They include a Cottrell Scholarship from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, a Sialog Collaborative Innovation Award (to promote science and dialogue), and a four-year, $800,000 INSPIRE grant from the National Science Foundation.

A mother of two young children, Ross eagerly encourages other women to pursue their interests in STEM careers and not hesitate because of an anticipated conflict between their personal and professional lives.

Ross is also known for leading her lab in creative projects bridging science and art, such as interpretive music videos, meditative coloring, and designing the cover for an issue of Biophysical Journal that features a cartoon of sword-wielding ninja proteins facing off against microtubule dragons in a fictional dojo. Ross upholds that doing a blow-off-steam project “lets you rest your brain and do something else that’s creative,” a disposition that is key to the scientific value of discovery.