An active researcher in chemical engineering and engineering education, Dean Julia M. Ross brings a unique perspective to the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech at a dynamic time in the university’s history.
Before Julia M. Ross became dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech; before she became engineering dean at University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and before she pursed her Ph.D. and bachelor’s in chemical engineering, she was a girl inspired by astronaut Sally Ride.
“I remember reading in magazines about her and her mission, and I thought that was the coolest thing,” Ross said. “I had a bit of an adventurous spirit as a teenager.”
With the influence of Ride and good grades in math and science classes, Ross decided to study chemical engineering at Purdue University. In truth, she said, at the time she wasn’t entirely sure what engineering was, but she knew she liked her chemistry class better than physics.
It all clicked for Ross during her co-op at Rochester, New York-based chemical company Eastman Kodak Company.
“That’s where I fell in love with the type of work engineers do: the complex problems, the problem solving aspects, and with bioengineering,” Ross said.
She returned to Purdue eager for more life sciences experience and landed in the lab of Mike Ladisch, professor of agricultural and biological engineering. She spent several semesters with Ladisch researching bioseparations, which confirmed for her that she wanted to do research in the bio area.
After graduating from Purdue in 1990, she followed the advice of mentor Nicholas Peppas to consider Rice University, where she completed her Ph.D. in chemical engineering. It was here where she discovered bioengineering as she worked alongside another mentor, Larry McIntire, and her “passion for being in an academic environment,” she said. For Ross, it was the people she worked with along the way that molded her into the active researcher she is today.
“I’ve been lucky to work with and be mentored by true pioneers in bioengineering who also happen to be genuinely good and caring people,” Ross said. “They continue to inspire me.”
Ross’ Ph.D. research focused on on how blood platelets adhere to cardiovascular surfaces. After graduating, she moved on to UMBC and opened her own lab, then expanded her research scope to include studying bacterial infections and how they form in the cardiovascular system.
Ross applies chemical engineering principles to questions about the way these infectious cells adhere to each other and to surfaces in the body. She uses principles like fluid mechanics, mass transfer, and reaction kinetics to better understand staph infections at the cellular level.
In October, Ross was elected to the executive committee of the Global Engineering Dean's Council, where she will serve a three-year term and work closely with engineering deans from around the world to advance engineering education, research, and service globally.
She’s studied the adhesion of bacteria to protein surfaces, biomaterials, and human blood cells, which is a process that is typically one of the first steps of an infection. Most recently, she’s been interested in biofilm formation, which is what often leads to chronic infection. Using an experimental technique known as protein micropatterning, Ross is now looking into the potential development of infection-resistant implants or tissue-engineered constructs.
“I’m really interested in hospital-acquired infections and how they form and how they can metastasize to other areas of the body,” she said. “And the research that we do, it’s very collaborative with clinicians and surgeons, but bringing the team of people together with different backgrounds and different expertise has been critical to the work.”
It’s this imperative to bring in diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives that influences her other research focus in engineering education.
Ross added on a second research focus after sitting around a table with colleagues at UMBC talking about the areas they wished their incoming freshman students were more prepared for, like solving open-ended problems, teamwork, and communication.
“We had this whole list of things that we wish they were more comfortable with coming out of high school,” Ross said. “From that conversation, we decide, let’s just see if we can get funding to do some of this.”
So she did just that.
Her funding includes a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation/Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (NSF/DRL) for Engineering Teacher Pedagogy: Using INSPIRES to Support Integration of Engineering Design into Science and Technology Classrooms, and a $2.97 million NSF/DRL grant titled “An Examination of Science and Technology Teachers’ Conceptual Learning through Concept-Based Engineering Professional Development.”
Ross was also the principal investigator leading the INcreasing Student Participation, Interest, and Recruitment in Engineering and Science (INSPIRES) K-12 initiative.
The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, partners with Baltimore County Schools to develop and implement an innovative curriculum that exposes high-school students to engineering earlier in their educational careers through existing science and technology classes.
Overall, Ross has received $12.9 million in external funding with a personal share of $9.97 million.
“Because I’m still research active, I fully understand the funding landscape and am learning to live with the changes and challenges just like all faculty are,” Ross said. “That gives me an important perspective, but I also think it helps me build relationships with faculty because I understand the enormous pressures of grant writing and being a principal investigator.”
Ross also looks forward to building a strengthened relationship between the College of Engineering and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute, considering her background in bioengineering and experience working closely with clinicians.
Ross’ approach to her new role as dean at Virginia Tech is rounded out by her additional research in engineering education. Though more qualitative than her other research area, Ross approaches the study of engineering education with the same depth and focus.
“We can learn so much about quality pedagogy and curriculum design by approaching teaching and learning with the same rigor that we bring to our technical research,” Ross said.
When Ross transitioned from being a faculty member to a department chair during her time at UMBC, she began focusing less on her own personal success and more on that of others. Rather than just building up her lab and her research publications, she had to support others in doing just that.
“When I became a department chair, that was the first time I sort of had to pick up my head and look much more broadly at the university and understand how not just my department worked, but how a College of Engineering works, and how a university works, and what all the different parts were, and how those different parts fit together,” Ross said. “And for me, that was a real turning point.”
She began elevating the work of her colleagues and her department, which was “transformational,” she said. She began to see how she could use her position and leadership to promote and strengthen the institution as a whole, leading her to adopt a bottom-up leadership style.
That’s how she approaches her new role as dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, too. Since starting on July 31, with tenured positions in both the departments of Chemical Engineering and Engineering Education, Ross has kept her ear to the ground, meeting with faculty, staff, and students, and observing their work and visiting their labs.
“The real work of the university happens with the faculty and staff and the important research that they do and with the interactions that they have with our students,” Ross said. “So supporting the faculty to make sure they have everything they need, to do what they need to do, is critical.”
Ross aims to position the college in a way that continues to attract top-tier faculty and talent, both to allow students to interact with these influential faculty members and to produce world-class research.
“Without the faculty, we can’t do any of the things that we want to do. The reason for being here — to create new knowledge, to teach our students — the faculty are central to all of those things,” she said.
Just as crucial, Ross said, is bringing new people with different backgrounds to the table — both for building a better college and for solving 21st century problems.
“We need every bright, smart person out there working on them and to really be creative about solutions. And the best way to do that — to be really creative — is to have people coming together from all different backgrounds, with all different life experiences, bringing all different perspectives to the problem,” Ross said.
Beyond recruiting talented faculty, staff, and students from all various backgrounds, Ross wants to ensure their success once they get here. She doesn’t see the value in the engineering field being intentionally exclusionary through a “weed out” culture.
“I believe in excellence and high quality and rigor but I do not believe in reaching excellence through exclusivity,” Ross said.
Instead of pushing undergraduates out of the field, Ross finds it imperative to improve retention rates by providing support where students need it. Engineering living-learning communities, like Hypatia and Galileo, and the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity are crucial for this reason.
Ross is a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. In 2013, she received the American Council on Education fellowship, the nation's premier higher-education leadership development program preparing senior leaders to serve American colleges and universities.
Becoming an inclusive institution amid a rapidly changing higher education landscape — one in which federal and state funding is less reliable, rendering college less affordable and ratcheting up national student loan debt — is no easy task.
It’s a challenge Ross doesn’t plan to shy away from within the College of Engineering. She joins Virginia Tech at a time when the university is elevating the same priority.
Since 1987, Virginia Tech’s enrollment of underrepresented students has increased from 4.9 percent to 12.5 percent, a rate of 0.25 percent per year, according to the Office of Inclusion and Diversity.
But the university wants to do better. Cue Project 2022: by the year 2022, Virginia Tech projects a goal of 25 percent underrepresented minority students in the student body and 15 percent underserved students — that is, low-income and first-generation students.
It’s more than just talk. Several newly created or expanded projects and funds are helping the university get there.
The university created the Beyond Boundaries Scholars program, which launched at the start of the fall 2017 semester. At least 137 Beyond Boundaries Scholars have benefitted from a matching gift program launched in November 2016 by university President Tim Sands.
Led by donors who create scholarships matched dollar-for-dollar by Virginia Tech, the program awards competitive scholarships to students from underserved communities and high-achieving students from all communities who otherwise might choose competing schools based on financial aid.
Then there’s the A. James Clark Scholars Program at the college level.
A $15 million gift from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation — the largest scholarship gift ever made to the university — paved the way for full-tuition scholarships and a holistic approach to engineering education for 10 in-state students from the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, which includes students from the College of Engineering and College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
By 2020, the program will quadruple to 40 students who pursue rigorous engineering and construction coursework, take at least two business classes, engage in community service activities, and participate in enrichment seminars and events with leaders in the field.
The donation capped a record-setting fiscal year for fundraising at Virginia Tech – $162.28 million in new gifts and commitments. The College of Engineering alone raised $43.7 million, or nearly 27 percent of the total for the university.
Ross’ arrival coincides with a dynamic time in the university’s history. In the time she’s spent at Virginia Tech listening and learning, Ross has noticed one long-standing, consistent theme.
“I think that this community, there’s something special here. And I think people feel connected to the university and to this community in a way that’s a bit uncommon for a university,” Ross said. “I haven’t been here long enough to understand why that is, but it’s really clear that that’s the case.”
One thing’s for sure: she’s looking forward to finding out.