Montana State University

MSU undergraduate’s 8.25 percent solution earns him publication in international journal

July 7, 2014 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

A paper written by Michael Ruiz, 26, a senior at MSU majoring in anthropology and honors, about a technique he developed for defleshing bones by increasing the proportion of undiluted bleach was published in the International Journal of Arts and Sciences. Ruiz also presented his research in May at conference held at Harvard Medical School. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University student’s research into a technique that will help forensic anthropologists speed up their analysis processes is the subject of a paper published recently in an international journal as well as a presentation at Harvard Medical School.

A paper written by Michael Ruiz, 26, a senior majoring in anthropology, on a technique he developed for defleshing bones by increasing the proportion of undiluted bleach, was published in the International Journal of Arts and Sciences. Ruiz also presented his research in May at conference held at Harvard Medical School.

Ruiz said he began the research as requirement for his selection as a McNair Scholar at MSU. He came up with the idea for the research while he was reading literature in the area of physical anthropology, the area of anthropology that interests him the most. He said he was intrigued by previous research about using household bleach for maceration, which is the process of removing soft tissue from skeletal remains to reveal the underlying bone for analysis, a process necessary to the work of forensic scientists and forensic anthropologists. The research found that tissue could be taken off of bones without damaging the surface using a solution of common household bleach, although the technique took some time. Ruiz wondered if he could speed the process, but not harm the bone surface, by increasing the amount of common household bleach in the solution.

He ran the experiment in an MSU chemistry lab that had good venting hoods, and obtained cow bones for the experiment at a local meat processing center while he adjusted both the proportion of the chemical and time in the solution. He found that a solution of 8.25 percent bleach over 3.5 hours is a quick, safe and effective method for exposing bones for analysis.

“I was just very interested in figuring out an efficient way to (deflesh the bones) and making a contribution,” Ruiz said. He said that he was honored that his work had “contributed something new” to the discipline.

John “Jack” Fisher, a professor of anthropology at MSU and Ruiz’ mentor, said that it is rare for an undergraduate in anthropology to publish research in a national journal. He said Ruiz’s initiative, especially as an undergraduate, is rare.

“Michael has been excellent at finding research opportunities for himself,” Fisher said. “This reflects well on the university and our program.”

Publication of his paper and speaking invitation are just two of several welcome academic awards that Ruiz has received recently. A non-traditional student who hails from an inner-city neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ruiz recently received a Montana University System Governors Best and Brightest Scholarship in the merit-at-large category, a $2,000 annual scholarship.

“It’s wonderful news because it covers about a third of my tuition here,” said Ruiz, who has pieced together funding for his education by working night as a clerk at a local hotel, as a mentor for MSU’s Minority Apprentice Program, and an assortment of other odd jobs.

Earlier this year, Ruiz also presented the methodology of the undiluted bleach method accepted into the young forensic scientists forum at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, under the mentorship of Fisher. 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 he wrote for an upper division anthropology class were published in “Catalyst: Memo to Memoir,” a collection of scientific and literary essays. Ruiz said he credits Fisher’s exacting writing standards as one reason for his publication success.

Ruiz will spend next school year on a student exchange to Stony Brook University in New York, which offers courses in physical anthropology not taught at MSU. He will return to MSU to complete his senior year as well as the additional requirements for his honors degree. Ruiz was recently admitted to the college as an upperclassman this year, which is somewhat unusual, according to Ilse-Mari Lee, dean of MSU’s Honors College. 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. Lee said Ruiz had support for his application from mentors throughout campus.

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

Ruiz’s academic journey has been unorthodox. A high school dropout, he came to MSU after an employment odyssey that included working at a Walmart in Williston, N.D. and working as a warehouse fork-lift operator. He moved to Bozeman for a relationship, and while the relationship didn’t last, his goal for an education did. He received a GED and enrolled in pre-med courses at MSU. While that wasn’t a good match, he discovered an immediate and unexpected passion for anthropology in a freshman anthropology class that satisfied a core requirement. Since that time, his love of anthropology ignited a drive for excellence and a set of new goals that include an interdisciplinary doctorate blending anthropology, engineering and medicine.

Ruiz said while his journey has been indirect, he is pleased to find himself where he is.

“The people at MSU have just been so supportive,” Ruiz said. “The university has given me the opportunity to succeed.”


Michael Ruiz