SFU PhD alumnus, Stephanie Ross revolutionizes muscle research with thesis

September 25, 2023

Sometimes greatness comes when you least expect it—at least it did for SFU Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology (BPK) PhD alumnus, Dr. Stephanie Ross.

Ross is the 2022 recipient of the CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award in the field of Engineering, Medical Sciences, and Natural Sciences for her ground-breaking and revolutionary research on muscle mass. Her research has ultimately changed the way in which we understand how muscles contract to move the body.

Previous to Ross’ research, it was widely accepted that muscles didn’t have mass and would behave the same way, regardless of whether they were in a mouse, frog, or in a human or elephant. The scaled-up approach to muscles has been the model of research for decades, as undertaking experimental research on larger subjects is difficult and invasive. Ross’ research gives tangible proof that the physical properties of muscle and tissue size affect how a muscle contracts. Previous research into human and larger animal muscle behaviours is missing this key element.

“Dr. Ross’ thesis ideas have been a complete departure from the previous massless dogma from the last century, and have led to a more complete, mechanistic, and accurate understanding of muscle function,” says SFU BPK professor, Dr. James Wakeling.

Ross has not only proven assumptions about muscle mass wrong, but she’s also created innovative mathematical models to account for muscle mass to incorporate this new information into existing muscular-skeletal models, allowing us to predict muscle behaviours in humans.

While there are some immediate implications for how Ross’ research can be used in practical ways, it may be too early to see the effect her research will have on future research.

Says Ross, “There’s this assumption that we have to know the immediate application of research in order for it to be important. So many of the important and useful discoveries we’ve made were ones that were intentionally or accidentally looking at something different than originally planned, or there was no understanding of what it would mean in the future. Many of the applications of older research are found in today’s technology, and they are the result of these fundamental understandings.”

This doesn’t mean that Ross can’t envision some of the ways in which her research might be implemented immediately.

“There are some practical implications in areas such as neuro-muscular diseases and things that affect muscle function, like stroke. How might muscles be impaired by these diseases or situations? We may want to predict what muscle function could be in order to predict the outcomes of surgery, or if we increase the muscle mass, how will that affect performance? These kinds of questions require us to understand how muscles work and we have very little understandings of this because we can’t directly measure it. The assumptions we’ve made through previous models haven’t been overly successful. This new understanding might help,” says Ross.

Knowing that Ross has essentially changed the way we understand muscles, it’s not surprising to anyone but Ross herself, that she’s being celebrated for her successes.

“When I was writing my thesis, it wasn’t my intention to make it something impressive or something anyone else read or even cared about. I was finding it challenging to write this as it was during the pandemic, I was stuck at home, and my supervisor suggested I write it as a way to share my ideas or write them down for myself; to get it out of my head. I wrote it kind of like a journal and it ended up being something I enjoyed reading. Winning this award is really unexpected, but also super cool,” says Ross.  

Ross isn’t one to stand still. Since graduating from SFU, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the rehabilitation program at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Physiotherapy where she was researching muscle function in people who have suffered a stroke. Currently, she’s working on a postdoctoral position with the University of Calgary in the Human Performance Lab in the Faculty of Kinesiology where she’s continuing her work on mathematical modelling while also looking at how different diseases affect muscle function, incorporating more experimental research to add to her theoretical research.

On reflecting about her experiences as a grad student and postdoctoral fellow, Ross doesn’t plan out her future or look to be the best at what she does; for her, these kinds of things tend to fall into place naturally, and the outcome is a result of her genuine interest and love for what she does.

“I’d like to stay in research. It’s fulfilling, fun and I really enjoy working with people who share a common interest,” says Ross, “Success is something that it so easily chased in academia with all the pressures and competition, but it’s important to remember that you have to enjoy and love what you do. I’ve been the most successful when I’ve cared the least about success.”

Winners of this award are granted a $1,500 cash prize, a certificate of recognition, and an opportunity to attend the 61st Annual CAGS Conference, to be held in Victoria, BC, in November 2023.