Note to readers:
This story was first published in Fresno State News. Read it here.
Students are gaining new opportunities to engage in scientific research thanks to a generous $1 million donation that established the first endowed chair position in the College of Science and Mathematics at Fresno State.
The newly established chair position will focus on genetics and molecular biology, supporting education and research that includes cell structure, molecular mechanisms of inheritance, gene expression and development.
The gift from the late Dr. Virginia Stammer Eaton led to the appointment of Dr. Joseph Ross as the inaugural Dr. Virginia Stammer Eaton Chair in Genetics and Molecular Biology this past spring.
Ross said creating the endowed chair position is transformative to students’ lives because it will ensure faculty members have the resources to impact many more students over multiple years.
“These benefits to students aren’t necessarily monetary; they can also include providing experiences and skills that will help them be more competitive in the job market after they graduate,” Ross said.
Dr. Christopher Meyer, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said the endowment was a significant step in advancing biological research at Fresno State. As chair, Ross brings an outstanding research record and has contributed significantly toward integrating teaching and research via Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences, Meyer said.
“The endowment will forward research in genetics and molecular biology, engage students in authentic projects leading to presentations at regional, national and international meetings and published papers, and also forward the integration of teaching and research in the department and college,” Meyer said.
Ross views his role as a bridge for preparing students for a lifetime of learning and service.
As a professor, he has worked with numerous master’s students and served on over 50 graduate committees.
“Fresno State’s students are ambassadors of cutting-edge knowledge and skills to our community,” Ross said. “This endowed chair position will help me help the Central Valley, and beyond, leverage genetics and molecular biology to improve our lives through understanding the natural world.”
After graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Oregon in 2000, Ross took a two-year break from studies to gain experience before embarking on his doctorate.
During the two years, he worked at a biotech start-up company in Seattle and later as a research technician at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“It was those experiences that showed me that I really liked doing lab-based research and wanted to research things that interested me,” Ross said. “And that meant that I needed to earn a Ph.D. if I wanted to run my own research lab.”
In 2008, he earned his Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from the University of Washington in Seattle, submitting his dissertation entitled: “The evolution of sex-chromosome systems in stickleback fishes.”
With the Ph.D. under his belt and after several years of postdoctoral work at Dr. Eric Haag’s lab at the University of Maryland, College Park, Ross achieved his goal to run his own lab. At Fresno State, he can choose his research study areas and mentor several students benefiting from Eaton’s generous endowment.
Ross has authored 14 peer-reviewed manuscripts that have yielded almost 2,000 citations.
Funding from the endowment has already made an impact, providing undergraduate students with supplies for their research, and wages, which allow students to focus on their research without worrying about looking for a job to make ends meet.
“Critically, the endowment will also support students in traveling to conferences and publishing their work in scholarly journals,” Ross said. “Faculty do not always have available funds to support such publishing costs. These professional experiences can be the factors that help our students decide to continue pursuing STEM degrees and careers and to be competitive for them.”
Casting a broad view into academia, Ross said the endowment presented an opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration to advance science and disseminate facts about often-misunderstood topics such as genetically modified organisms.
“As a university, we strive to provide students with holistic experiences that integrate multiple disciplinary perspectives,” Ross said. “This endowed chair position accelerates our ability to help our students to understand and apply aspects of genetics and molecular biology to their lives and communities.”
Ross has served as the faculty adviser for the Fresno State chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, guiding student members toward successful career paths through workshops and scholarships and assisting them in preparing for visits to professional graduate schools.
Eaton, a lifelong Fresnan, passed away last year at the age of 99. She graduated from Fresno High School at 17 years old and attended Stanford University, earning a biology degree with honors in just three years.
She then joined the University of Southern California medical school. She finished her studies in 1947 as the sole woman to graduate in her class in an era when women faced discrimination and were discouraged from pursuing areas of medicine beyond pediatrics and gynecology.
Soon after graduating from med school, she embarked on a distinguished career as a pediatrician at age 25, dedicating herself to diagnosing and supporting children with developmental disabilities and serving underprivileged communities.
Ross said he met Eaton in 2017 when he volunteered to give her a tour of his lab.
“I remember that she was keenly interested in one of the main topics we researched: how cells control the transmission of certain critically important pieces of DNA from parents to their children at fertilization,” Ross recalled. “I suspect this was perhaps meaningful to Virginia because of her long career in pediatrics and especially how genetics affected her patients. I had no idea at the time that a potential gift was perhaps being planned.”