“I had to declare my major in my first semester,” she said. “And, since I liked chemistry more than I liked physics, and I was interested in how engineering can blend with medicine, I majored in chemical engineering.”
Ross developed a passion for biotech during her co-op at Eastman Kodak. She had started at Rice just as the school was broadening its bioengineering and biotech options. Ross said that, at the time, Rice was one of the very few places in the country offering such coursework. Here in Houston, she found a place where she could grow.
“The journey from Purdue to Rice was transforming for me,” Ross explained. “I came to Purdue as an 18-year-old kid from rural Indiana. And then at Rice, I found myself at a small institution in this huge city, and in an environment where I got to know my professors and felt that they really cared about me as an individual. That was huge.”
Ross also said that at Rice, she met students and faculty from all over the world. Having a front-row seat to that level of diversity is something she carried with her throughout her academic career.
“I look at the demographics of our students, faculty, and staff here at Virginia Tech, and I think about what diversity and inclusion mean,” she said. “How do we create that environment? What does it mean for our tradition as a land-grant, large state university? We need engineers who can solve complex global problems that are fueling the pipeline and workforce needs. We need engineers who are from different backgrounds to do it.”
Ross said that Virginia Tech’s land grant ethos is an important foundation for the college. The university has long been a leader among the colleges and universities in the state, even as it recruits talented students, faculty, and researchers from around the country to join its endeavors. But, she also believes that trends in engineering – the rise of artificial intelligence and importance of cybersecurity; the need for universities to be stronger partners with local, national, and international industry leaders – require a vision that pulls ideas from people from a variety of backgrounds.
“Rice broadened my experience in every way,” she said. “I was shy and I had to learn to come out of my shell, to change how I acted in different settings. I want to provide those same kinds of opportunities for our students.”
Ross focused on fluid mechanics in her research, especially how it relates to infection formation in the cardiovascular system. And she was attracted to a career in academia because she felt it was the perfect place to blend her research efforts – during her career she’s received $13 million in external funding – with her desire to give students the same kinds of opportunities she’s had.
“I want our students to be fearless,” she said. “I want them to really believe they can not only do anything they want if they work hard, but to see the world as full of opportunity.”
If her first year at Virginia Tech is any indication, she’s on the right track. Ross helped coordinate a $5 million gift from the May Family Foundation, which will support efforts to increase both the recruitment and retention of first-generation college students.
“And I am hungry to do more,” she said. “This college has so much strength, breadth, and depth. I love the heart of its students and faculty. We are poised to make a tremendous impact.”