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In Memoriam: Robert James Ross, MD, PhD

January 28, 2021

Robert James Ross, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor Adjunct, died peacefully at home on January 17, 2020. He was 38.

Bob was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida at age 6. He graduated high school as valedictorian and was also captain of the swim team, co-captain of the cross-country team, and was awarded the Florida High School Athletic Association Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award.

Bob did his undergraduate work at University of Florida where he did research on synthesis of nanoparticles, and graduated with a BS in chemistry, a perfect cumulative GPA, and as valedictorian. After graduation, Bob worked at NIH for two years studying macular degeneration. Bob matriculated into the MD/PhD program at Yale School of Medicine in 2007. After completing his preclinical studies, he entered the lab of Haifan Lin who compiled this remembrance:

Bob’s research tackled one of the most elusive genetic phenomena that cannot be explained by the current genetic theory. The current genetic theory, established around 1910, says that a mutation generates a corresponding phenotype. However, Conrad Waddington (a Scottish geneticist) first challenged this theory in 1942. Based on his observations, Waddington proposed that an organism has an ability to block weak mutations from generating phenotype. This is the so-called the “canalization hypothesis."

This hypothesis challenges the most fundamental principle of genetics. It, however, remained untested for 56 years until 1998, when Susan Lindquist (an American geneticist) validated the canalization phenomenon and identified the first molecule (Hsp90) involved in canalization in the yeast and Arabidopsis. Despite this progress, it remained a mystery whether canalization occurs in mammals and how Hsp90 was involved in canalization.

This was where Bob made an important contribution. Bob showed that the Hsp90 molecule, existing in two different forms in mammals (Hsp90α and Hsp90β), has canalization-related functions in mammals. Bob wrote a beautiful PhD thesis on these discoveries, and together with Molly Weiner (another MD/PhD student in the lab) and myself, Bob wrote a comprehensive review on the somatic function of the Piwi-piRNA pathway, which was published in Nature.

In addition to his scientific work, Bob received Honors on every clerkship and was very involved with the Wednesday Evening Clinic as a clinician, quality improvement director, and eventually became the student director of the clinic, bearing responsibility for the overall operation of the clinic.

Given this portfolio of accomplishments, we were thrilled when Bob matched into our psychiatry residency program. He quickly established himself as an outstanding clinical psychiatrist. One of his supervisors wrote that Bob “was so genuinely enthusiastic about patient care — his face lit up as he embraced opportunities to see new patients and established patient in clinic. Bob has a very empathic yet efficient interviewing style, and easily fosters patient’s trust and respect.”

It was not surprising that during his second year of residency, Bob was awarded the Ira R. Levine Award “for demonstrating clinical excellence, breadth of learning and devotion to care of patients with severe psychiatric illness.” Bob was also a valued teacher and enjoyed training the next generation of Yale medical students. Most memorably, Bob was a wonderful colleague: kind, humorous and someone who wore his learning lightly. He was able to discuss the challenges he faced in a very straightforward manner, and in doing so provided comfort to all of us.

Bob continued to be interested in pursuing science and when increasing health challenges made it no longer possible to practice psychiatry, he became an Assistant Professor Adjunct in our department. We miss our colleague and extend our deepest sympathies to his beloved family.

Submitted by Christopher Gardner on January 28, 2021