Mary H. Ross, who pioneered genetics and behavioral research of the German cockroach, died July 6 in Blacksburg, Va. She was 87.
Ross, professor emerita of entomology in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was internationally recognized for her research with the German cockroach, the most common of all cockroaches. For nearly 30 years she studied the insect in the same laboratory, where shelves were stacked high with containers of wiggling bugs. Her career at the university spanned 38 years.
“She was an extremely gentle woman who remained focused on her research,” said Professor Loke Kok, head of the Department of Entomology.
Ross’ extraordinary service was recognized in 1983, when she was presented Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for Excellence in Research and Extension. She was likely one of few women in the Entomological Society of America during her early years.
"She was also one of the nicest ladies I’ve had the opportunity to meet,” said Thomas Kuhar, associate professor in entomology. He still has an insect-dissecting kit that Ross gave him when he was a graduate student.
Though some may cringe at working with cockroaches, they fascinated Ross as she delved deep into their genetics and behavior.
"I don't mind working with a German cockroach," Ross said in a 1987 interview with the Associated Press. “When you keep it in a jar and keep it clean, it's not bad — a lot better than flies.”
Because she feared the possibility that an exterminator could accidentally wipe out her life’s work, she posted a sign outside the lab that reflected both her concern and politeness. It read, "Please do not spray insecticide in this lab. Thank you."
“Dr. Ross was a wonderful mentor and adviser. She was intelligent, generous, and relentless in pursuing her goals,” said Professor Clifford Keil, who received his master’s, and Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. He is now the director of the Museum of Invertebrates at Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador.
Ross received her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. from Cornell University. She is survived by her children, Mary, Robert, and Nancy Ross.
“My mom was my best friend, I loved her dearly,” said Nancy Ross, head of the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech. “We were lucky to be able to share our professional experiences.”
She said her mom was a quiet woman.
“She wasn’t into a lot of chit chat, but behind her silence was a keen mind,” Nancy said. “When she spoke, people would listen.”
Nancy laughed when she remembered finding an essay that her mom wrote in grade school, which illustrated her life-long interest in all creatures great and small. The essay was titled, “From Birds to Skunks.”
A memorial service to celebrate her life will be held Saturday, July 14, 2012, at the McCoy Funeral Home Chapel in Blacksburg, Va. Guests are invited to join the family at 4 p.m., with the service following at 5 p.m. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to the James M. Grayson Scholarship Fund in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech. Donations may be mailed to: Virginia Tech Foundation, Virginia Tech, University Development (0336), Attention: Gift Accounting, Blacksburg, VA 24061.