A wizard of ultrasharp imaging: Frances Ross

Though Frances Ross and her sister Caroline Ross both ended up on the faculty of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, they got there by quite different pathways. While Caroline followed a more traditional academic route and has spent most of her career at MIT, Frances Ross spent most of her professional life working in the industrial sector, as a microscopy specialist at IBM. It wasn’t until 2018 that she arrived at MIT to oversee the new state-of-the-art electron microscope systems being installed in the new MIT.nano facility.

After earning her doctorate at Cambridge University in materials science, specializing in electron microscopy, Frances Ross went on to do a postdoc at Bell Labs in New Jersey, and then to the National Center for Electron Microscopy at the University of California at Berkeley. From there she continued her work in electron microscopy at IBM in Yorktown Heights, New York, where she spent 20 years working on development and application of electron microscope technology to studying crystal growth.

When MIT built its new cutting-edge nanotechnology fabrication and analysis facility, MIT.nano, it was clear that state-of-the-art microscope technology would need to be a key feature of the new center. That’s when Ross was hired as a professor, along with Professor Jim LeBeau and Research Scientist Rami Dana, who had an academic and industrial research background, to oversee the creation, development, and application of those microscopes for DMSE and the wider MIT community.

There will be two major electron microscope systems for materials science, which are gradually taking shape inside the vibration-isolated basement level of MIT.nano, alongside two others already installed that are specialized for biomedical imaging.

One of these will be an advanced version of a standard electron microscope, she says, that will have a unique combination of features. “There is nothing that exists with the capabilities that we are aiming for here.”

Other instruments and capabilities are also being added to MIT’s microscopy portfolio. A new scanning transmission electron microscope is already installed in MIT.nano and is providing high-resolution structural and chemical analysis of samples for several projects at MIT. Another new capability is a special sample holder that allows researchers to make movies of unfolding processes in water or other liquids in the microscope. This allows detailed monitoring, at up to 100 frames per second, of a variety of phenomena, such as solution-phase growth, unfolding chemical reactions, or electrochemical processes such as battery charging and discharging. Making movies of processes taking place in water, Ross says, “is something of a new field for electron microscopy.”

“I’m hoping that MIT becomes a center for electron microscopy,” she says. “You know, with all the interesting materials science and physics that goes on here, it matches up very well with this unique instrumentation, this high-quality combination of imaging and analysis. These unique characterization capabilities really complement the rest of the science that happens here.”

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