Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

What it means to be human… May 12, 2015 by Carol Schmidt • Published 05/12/15

Michael Ruiz
Michael Ruiz

While growing up, Michael Ruiz could make out the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles from the front porch of his family’s home in the central neighborhood of El Sereno. But, he couldn’t see a future.

At least, he couldn’t see a future that involved anything but the dead-end poverty, dysfunction and depression that surrounded him.

From that vantage point in inner-city LA, he could not have imagined that one day he would be a rising star nationally in the academic field of physical anthropology. He certainly couldn’t have foreseen that one day he would present scientific findings at Harvard Medical School.

And he would have never imagined the day that he would find the passion that would propel him from urban poverty and homelessness to national academic excellence in such an unexpected place—a classroom in faraway Montana.

Hope is a four-letter word

Ruiz is reluctant to talk about his childhood—he says it is a dark time for him. Yet when he does, it is with disarming candor.

“I watched a LOT of television growing up,” said Ruiz, now a 27-year-old senior at MSU. The youngest of three children and the only boy born to two Mexican immigrants, he was mostly raised by his mother, who worked for the State of California. His father died when he was young.

“I didn’t have any male figure in my life. And, I was depressed. Watching television only made it worse. So many of the television families worked things out when my family couldn’t seem to figure it out.”

Ruiz was bright, but when his elementary principal suggested that he would benefit from a special school outside his neighborhood, his mother assumed it was for problem children rather than gifted learners, and she
was horrified.

Ruiz recalls a litany of problems that contributed to his feeling like a misfit. “I was having teenage struggles,” Ruiz said. “I became depressed. I was severely overweight. And, I was struggling with my sexuality. So, I stopped eating and began wrestling with my inner demons.” During this time, he also came out as a homosexual.

It was a perfect storm of disastrous events. He said he was expelled from Los Angeles’ Cathedral High School “for displaying unhealthy behaviors.” His family was also unsupportive. “I’m from a Hispanic family. We are very machismo.”

As his world crashed, so did Ruiz. He was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric facility for a 72-hour consult. He was 16.

Ruiz calls his time in the facility “probably the best three days of my life.”

“I reached out to the counselors and they validated me,” Ruiz said of the resulting four months of outpatient group therapy. “There were people around me for the first time in my life. People listened to me.

“In the end, I realized that I could have a normal, happy life, and I didn’t need my family to be there.”

So Ruiz struck out on his own. He attended LA’s Woodrow Wilson High School, a public school, supporting himself by working in a 99 Cent store. When high school was over, he got what he thought was a golden ticket—training to operate a forklift in a warehouse, “a really good job in my world.”

Then, the recession hit in 2008, and jobs on forklifts, or anything else for that matter, became rare.

“It was a devastating time,” Ruiz said. “I just tried to survive.”

He was homeless and looking for anything when a friend from Woodrow Wilson invited Ruiz to come live with her and her family in North Dakota.

“I got on the next bus to Bismarck. When I got off the bus, it was June. And, I thought, ‘This will be OK.’”

An unlikely hand up

Ruiz learned that his friend actually lived on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in a town of “maybe 60 people on a good day.” There wasn’t work there, although the people were kind. Ruiz moved on to Bismarck, N.D., then Mandan. For 15 months, he was again homeless, sleeping on couches or restroom floors.

Finally, his knowledge of forklift operation helped him land a job in the Bismarck Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart helped me turn my life around,” he said. “I could finally afford to pay rent.”

Another break was the Bakken oil boom. Wal-Mart advertised that it would pay bonuses, rent and a meal allowance for employees who would give the company a six-month commitment to work in Williston, N.D. Ruiz transferred, working 90-hour weeks for almost a year, his only bill a phone bill. He pocketed the first savings of his life.

“There were people in Williston from all over the country, from all walks of life, and it got me to thinking about where I was going,” Ruiz said. “I had the feeling that I wanted to do something more.”

He realized what he wanted to do was go back to school. About this time, Ruiz developed a relationship with a man from Bozeman, so he moved to Bozeman and set about working to establish in-state residency so he could attend college. The relationship didn’t last, but his determination did. He worked for FedEx and Blackhawk Manufacturing. A year later, and nearly 24 years old, he enrolled as a freshman at MSU.

“At first I tried pre-med, and I was a disaster,” he said. “You could say my math preparation wasn’t good.”

In his second semester of his freshman year, however, he took a general anthropology class as a core class requirement. He said he was nearly immediately compelled by the overarching basic question that concerns all anthropologists: “What does it mean to be a human?”

“I had to figure out what it meant to be a person in the world, in my family, and in my community all by myself. So when I heard my instructor in the ANT 101 course say ‘What does it mean to be human?’ I thought… This man just summed up my entire life’s journey in one sentence.”

Financially, life as a student was still challenging. Ruiz worked at three different jobs a total of 90 hours a week to earn money for tuition.

“I took as many credits as I could—16–19 credits—those first two years. I don’t know how I did it,” Ruiz said. “But each day I would think that I was about to pull myself out of that hole. I just felt so fortunate that I was no longer homeless.”

The poetry of bones

By his second year at MSU, professors and staff began to notice Ruiz’s talent, his focus and his eagerness to learn and excel. A small village of mentors emerged.

Shelly Hogan, director of MSU’s McNair Scholars Program, mentored Ruiz on research opportunities and presentations. Hogan says that Ruiz’s focus “blows me out of the water.”

For instance, early in his work with Hogan, Ruiz noted that not much had been researched about efficient and economical methods to deflesh bones, a technique necessary for forensic anthropology, a sub-field of physical anthropology. It borrows methods and techniques developed from other areas, such as skeletal biology, and applies them to forensic cases. Ruiz experimented with a method increasing the solution of household bleach above a previously tested level. Hogan helped arrange a lab with a vented hood that he could work in. The research was accepted for presentations in Seattle (funded by McNair) and at Harvard Medical School.

“He is very motived and has an exceptional work ethic,” Hogan said. “If I could clone him, I would.”

Last year a paper Ruiz wrote was accepted into the young forensic scientists forum at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, under the mentorship of John “Jack” Fisher, MSU anthropology professor, who Ruiz said is “a huge inspiration and mentor and adviser for me.”

Ruiz is also now working on research with Ron June, an MSU mechanical engineering professor. Ruiz explains that because he is a physical anthropologist, and the body is a mechanical system, the engineering discipline has applications to his work.

In addition, two articles Ruiz wrote for an upper division anthropology class were published in Catalyst: Memo to Memoir, a collection of scientific and literary essays. It is unusual for an undergraduate to have his research published in a juried journal, much less two. Ruiz said he credits Fisher’s exacting writing standards as one reason for his publication success.

Ruiz found another mentor in Phenocia Bauerle, former director of MSU Diversity Awareness Office, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley. She said Ruiz just showed up to the MSU Diversity Awareness Office and asked how he could become involved. Bauerle said Ruiz took a leadership role in MSU’s LGBTQ organization, serving on the advisory board.

“He’s amazing,” Bauerle said. “I don’t know anyone else as a student, or even his age, who just figured out things and made them happen. He figured out housing by working as a night clerk at a hotel, and other jobs that worked with school. He’s a pretty special guy. And, I think MSU has done so much for him. It has allowed him to be successful.”

While Ruiz’s research in forensic anthropology has garnered him national notice, he is now focused on the broader parent field of physical anthropology, which is the study of present and past human biology and evolution. Because MSU emphasizes cultural anthropology, the study of current human culture and archaeology, Ruiz took advantage of MSU’s national exchange program to study this school year at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island, N.Y., a national center of excellence for biological anthropology.

Ruiz is amused that he has been nicknamed “Montana” at Stony Brook. Faculty at the institution include giants in the field, including Meave and Richard Leakey. He is working on another scholarly paper and hopes to conduct research at an Ivy League institution in the summer.

“It truly is a dream come true to be able to work with them all,” Ruiz said. “I want to learn as much as I can while I am here. I have been working very hard here in New York, really diving into my coursework with the purpose of finding a potential course of study for graduate work, such as locomotor biomechanics.”

Among the best and brightest

Ruiz recently received a Montana University System Governors Best and Brightest Scholarship in the merit-at-large category, a $2,000 annual scholarship. He will use it when he returns to MSU for his last year to complete the requirements for his Honors College degree. Because an honors degree requires an additional 16–28 hours of honors classes, most students apply for admission to the University Honors College early in their academic career, and it’s rare for an upperclassman to be admitted to the college. But, Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of the college, was in the audience when Ruiz gave a presentation and encouraged him to apply for the Honors College as an upperclassman. Lee said Ruiz had support for his successful application from mentors throughout campus.

“Michael is an inspiration to all he meets,” Lee said.

Ruiz’s plans after MSU include graduate school, where he will study bones and their role in human biology. He plans to earn a doctorate degree—he’s uncertain if he will have an eventual career in academia or industry—but he is certain that his future will involve bones.

“As much as we know about humans and how they evolved, there is more we don’t know.”

What Ruiz does know is that his hard-knock journey has made him appreciate where he is now.

“It took me so long to get here, I don’t want to waste a day of potential,” he said.

“The people at MSU have just been so supportive. I can’t imagine that I would have had the same opportunities if I had gone to another school because this university truly has given me the opportunity to succeed. I can probably say I owe this school everything, actually.” ■