Student overcomes homelessness to achieve dream
Michael Ruiz, a 2016 graduate of Montana State University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the College of Letters and Science, has received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship that he will use at Harvard University to study how cell and tissue mechanics impact the evolution of human bodies.
Ruiz, of Los Angeles, will pursue his doctorate at Harvard. He said the fellowship, which provides $34,000 a year for three years, will allow him to concentrate solely on his research. “The fellowship provides me a means to stay focused on my studies and what I’m going to contribute to the field,” he said. “It provides me with a professional network and professional development opportunities. It’s an amazing program.”
Ruiz added that the three-year award from the NSF will piggyback on the financial aid package he received from Harvard that provides him with five years of funding for his doctoral courses and research.
Ruiz is spending the summer at Harvard as part of the university’s Research Scholar Initiative, a program in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences that assists underrepresented minorities and first-generation students during the first two years of graduate school.
In the fall, Ruiz will work in noted paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman’s Skeletal Biology and Biomechanics Lab. There, Ruiz will research how cells in the skeletal system and tissues change in response to mechanical loading – applied forces to bodies and their natural resistance to those forces -- and other physical forces and how those changes influence physiology and human development over time. Additionally, he will study what ailments, such as osteoarthritis, humans might be exposed to from the impact of mechanical loading.
“I’m interested in how our post-industrial era environment and way of living are influencing our bodies; specifically, what the impacts are to our skeletal biology,” Ruiz said. “How is sitting at a desk all day going to affect you over long periods of time? Will you get osteoarthritis because of it or because you’re typing 100 words a minute nearly every day for 20 years? Those are the types of things I want to understand. I have a million questions about the human body.”
Lieberman, professor of biological sciences and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, is known for his research in mismatch diseases, a theory that human bodies, still in their hunter-gatherer state, have not yet evolved enough to be well suited for today’s way of living.
Through his work, Ruiz is searching for answers on what it means to be human from a biological and mechanical perspective, which led him to focus on physical anthropology.
"Traditional North American anthropology didn’t fit what I wanted to do, so I found a way to balance my research interests with my courses and ensure they would satisfy my degree requirements and intellectual goals,” he said. “What’s beautiful about anthropology is that the discipline has infinite room to expand its knowledge because being human is a complex experience.”
During his junior year at MSU, Ruiz’s research into a technique to speed up the process of defleshing bones was published in the International Journal of Arts and Science. He was invited to present his findings at Harvard Medical School and at the Young Forensics Scientists forum at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, under the mentorship of Jack Fisher, MSU professor of anthropology.
In 2014, Ruiz spent a year on a student exchange to Stony Brook University in New York to take courses in physical anthropology not offered at MSU. At Stony Brook, he was part of a research team that studied how and when in evolutionary history human ancestors began to walk upright. The research was published in the proceedings of the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
For his contributions at Stony Brook, Ruiz received the Wendel Wickland Student Achievement Award, given to students who demonstrate the best use of their exchange participation.
This year, Ruiz was named an IDEAS Scholar, a recognition given by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists to a young minority scholar who is increasing diversity in evolutionary anthropological sciences.
After returning from Stony Brook, Ruiz completed his graduation requirements at MSU as a National Institutes of Health research fellow in the lab of Ron June, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in the College of Engineering.
In June’s lab, Ruiz developed a novel idea to study the progression of arthritis in the modern human knee using traditional structural engineering methods. Ruiz said the engineering discipline had applications to his research in physical anthropology because the body is a mechanical system.
“Ron was a great mentor and open to inviting a social scientist into the lab,” Ruiz said. “He didn’t treat me any differently than an engineering student and he taught me how to ask engineering questions and questions about science.”
June lauded Ruiz’s determination in overcoming many obstacles to succeed.
“He came to us after deciding he needed a college degree, ultimately becoming the first in his family to graduate college, and now he’s on his way to Harvard to get his doctorate,” June said. “Michael is a great example of what we aspire to do at MSU.”
Ruiz chose to major in anthropology at MSU when his instructor explained the fundamental question of anthropology is “What does it mean to be human?” This resonated with Ruiz, who overcame depression and homelessness before enrolling at MSU in fall 2011.
“I didn’t have many supportive mentors growing up,” Ruiz said. “Not that they didn’t want to see me go to college and finish high school (which I didn’t), they just didn’t know how to support what I wanted to do.”
As a first-generation college student, Ruiz said he didn’t have the advantages his peers with college-educated family members had.
“They were able to pool resources and support during their college experience because it’s built into their family unit,” he said. “I didn’t have that, so it was quite strange telling my Hispanic working-class family that I wanted to become a scientist.”
What mentors he lacked in his youth, Ruiz made up for among the MSU faculty and staff who helped him succeed, including EMPower Director Amy Stix and TRiO Director Julian Collins, who taught him how to advocate for himself.
“MSU provided me with a forum, a space and a team to empower myself through education,” Ruiz said.
After earning his doctorate, Ruiz plans to apply for an NIH award that funds biomedical research for post-doctoral students and plans a future career in research and development.