Physics Spotlight

March 2016
Photo of Professor Jennifer Ross

Jennifer Ross

Ph.D., University of California, Santa Barbara (2004)

We have chosen Professor Ross to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to her interesting research in biophysics and her dedication to the advancement of women in science. Professor Ross specializes in Microtubule Biophysics. Please take a few minutes to check out her Woman of Science blog as well as the Ross Lab website.

What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what?

I was a Math and Physics double major at Wellesley College, a women’s college outside of Boston.  I went to grad school at the University of California, Santa Barbara to study physics.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to?

As an undergrad in math and physics, I liked both.  I did a Research Experience for Undergraduates at Mt. Holyoke College, down the road from UMass, in applied math on fluids.  The whole time, all I wanted to do was an experiment to test if our simulations were correct.  The REU showed me two things:  1) I really liked research and 2) I needed to be an experimentalist.

I applied to places with broad programs in condensed matter, because I was pretty sure I wanted to do condensed matter experiments, but I wasn’t sure exactly what.  I liked biophysics and nanoscale physics.  I wanted to go to a place with happy grad students.  In the end, I was deciding between UCSB and Cornell and picked the one with warmer weather.

I started doing biophysics in grad school, and prior to that thought biology was all about memorization of facts.  Biophysics is really a cool type of physics that is nanoscale, non-equilibrium, and complex; all things that I think are interesting physics.

Briefly, explain your research:

We study how the cell organizes itself using proteins that use energy.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Well, we have a biological physics course, but I haven’t taught it recently, and I’m not really sure it is representative.  Physics 287 has a lot of sections that discuss oscillators and optics, and we use that a lot.  Also, the optics course I invented where we build a light microscope is very close to the optics building we do in the lab.

What is your favorite science paper?

This is a tough one.  There is this not too recent paper modeling microtubule dynamic instability by David Odde that I think explains a lot of questions about how microtubules, which we study, use energy to shrink.

Do you take undergraduates in your lab? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

Yes!  I have a lot of undergraduates in my lab.  They do their own experiments after taking a one-week “BioBootCamp” in January.  They each get experiments and they often have a senior lab member who guides them in their research.  I have published four papers with undergraduates over the past 9 years, and we are in the process of writing a 5th.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level? What is your favorite class to teach at the graduate level?

Each class is an exciting challenge and puzzle to solve.  The students of each class and level are fun to work with in their own way.  I really enjoyed Physics 287, which I taught 4 times, and I think I really helped a lot of students understand some of the most important and fundamental concepts of physics – especially oscillators!  I really like to teach the optics course because I invented it.

I have only taught two courses at the graduate level and the most recent was Jackson E&M.   For me, it was as unpleasant to teach as it was to take.  I know others enjoy these courses, but the material was pretty painful for me to slog through, and I was never confident that I was doing a good job.

How do you train graduate students in your research? How do they start research?

Physics graduate students usually start in the summer with a summer research “rotation.”  I prefer students to do this rotation either before they start their first year or between their first and second years.  It is a trial period for us both.  They get their own project, and we see what type of progress they make, if we like them, and if they like us (the lab).  If things work out, they start in the lab full time after passing their qualifying exam.

You have an advice blog for academic scientists at How did you decide to start that? What response have you gotten?

As I was getting tenure, several women faculty in other physics departments who were just behind me in the tenure track swarmed me to get advice about how to get through the final throws of the tenure process.  I had lunch with 3-4 women at a couple conferences – all seeking advice.  I realized that I had a lot to offer about how to do this job in an efficient and competent manner.  Since I was secure in tenure, and unlikely to lose my job over an advice blog, I decided to start a blog to dole out my advice to more than 3-4 women at a time.  I named it “woman of science” to echo a phrase I had heard in describing men.  I don’t think my advice is perfect or right for everyone, but I think it resonates with a lot of people.  I have had a really positive response.  I try to keep the tone informative and helpful. I do complain a little, but mostly it is in the hope of warning or teaching others.