Mr. Science

A conversation with Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of science

Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science, has plenty to boast about these days.

The college is not only on the forefront of space exploration, climate-change research, biochemistry, telescope development and computer science; it also employs more than 1,700 people and brings in more money than any other department at the university. Last year, the state contributed roughly $64 million to the department's budget, while research grants brought in more than $136 million.

"Joaquin brings an incredible intellectual leadership to both the university and the community," says Jim Gentile, president and CEO of the Tucson-based Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the nation's oldest foundation dedicated to funding scientific research. "It's not just the research—clearly, that's important. It's a money-driver; it's a catalyst. But the fact that he's able to orchestrate it so that undergraduate students are involved right in the same level of research for all practical purposes as graduate students and post-doctoral students is just remarkable."

Here's a condensed version of a conversation the Tucson Weekly recently had with Ruiz.

What should the people of Tucson know about what the College of Scienceis doing that they probably don't?

No. 1, I should point out the return on the investment they get as taxpayers. No. 2, I think that creating new knowledge that will improve our lifestyles is quite important. No. 3, we take incredibly seriously—and I think we do it better than most—engaging our undergraduate students and students from high schools in research, so they get an education in our university that is almost impossible to get in other universities of our caliber. Our faculty enjoys having undergraduate students do research with them.

The nation seems to have stalled when it comes to getting kids engaged in science. How do you change that?

We do it by providing the kind of education our competitors—Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard, Michigan, whatnot—are not as good at: We let our undergraduate students be part of the research experience. Typically, the way that it works in higher education is that when you come into a university as an undergraduate student, not only do you have an experience of being at a university and everything that it gives you, but you take a bunch of courses. That's the fundamental aspect of undergraduate education, or it has been. What we do is, we try to create the experience of a liberal-arts college—the personalized education for our students—but with all of the assets that a research institution has. To me, that's what a Research I state-funded university should be all about ...

... giving students a chance to have a hands-on experience.

About 60 percent of our undergraduate students in the College of Science are engaged in research. My gut tells me that if we were more aggressive about it, we could get about 70 percent, and about 30 percent just don't want to be involved. So I think we're just about topped out to serve those who want such an experience, because it's a lot of work.

You're also reaching out to high schools.

We've created a program where our faculty members engage undergraduate students, and there's not much difference between a freshman student and a high school student—the really good ones, anyway. We have high school students from San Miguel High School; we have high school students from Tucson High; we have high school students from the foothills. They come here in the summer from a variety of levels and get exposed to research.

What happens when you involve students in research?

In regards to our undergraduate students, the attitude (of the students) toward research gets stronger and better. The students' world is no longer 45,000 students, but the lab. So you've created more of a liberal-arts college experience for them, because they have a place they connect with. They become part of that community. I think that's very important.

Why are you excited about the UA's acquisition of Biosphere 2?

The Biosphere, which has a complicated history, may have been different things at different times. But today, there is no tool of its type for the ecological problems that we have to address. There's all kind of debate about the consequences of global climate change. We don't really know what's going to happen. If you look at atmospheric scientists, they are pretty sure that the winter rains in the Southwest are going to disappear as temperatures heat up. But they are completely in a muddle as to what's going to happen with our monsoon season. Some say it's going to be the same; some say it's going to rain more; some say it's going to rain less. Those are the kinds of debates that are going on in science.

But even if the monsoon remains the way it is, and winter rains change, that means the pattern of rain is going to change, which means that the plants that we have are going to have to change, because they require the environment we have today. As the vegetation changes, the amount of water that hits our surface also changes, because some plants act as pumps to get water down into the water table. In the winter, palo verde trees suck water down into the roots, and they basically have enough of a reservoir for the rest of the year. So plants are really important to what happens to water, but the fate of water as the vegetation changes is something we don't understand at all.

There's only one experimental station where you can do experiments on the scale required to make sense of the questions and the answers—and that's the Biosphere. There is no other place in the world with the control that you can have at that size. We have acquired it at a time when its need is evident to everybody in science.

Talk a little bit about the multidisciplinary approach you use here.

If you look at science in the future, there's no doubt that we have to worry about the fundamentals of each one of our disciplines. So you look at the particle accelerator in Switzerland that's still trying to (help scientists) figure out the particles that connect energy to matter. That's fundamental physics. Astronomy is still looking at what our cosmos is made out of. But there's more and more research that's at the boundaries of the disciplines as we know them today. At this university, there has been a culture of collaboration and creation of disciplines, probably unequaled anywhere in the U.S.

Examples are the Lunar and Planetary Lab, optical sciences, the tree-ring lab. We've just created a school of mind, brain and behavior. The idea is to study the brain, all the way from molecular level to the mind. It's cognitive sciences to psychology to ethics—the whole shebang.

You landed a robot on Mars last year with Peter Smith's Phoenix mission at the Lunar and Planetary Lab.

It's the first time that a university has actually been in charge of the scientific programs of one of these probes. When you see all these rovers and stuff that you've seen in the past, the people running the science (were) the NASA folks. They send the commands up there, and they're in charge of the program. This was the first time that when something landed on another planet, NASA gave the controls to a university. There were a bunch of undergraduate students involved in that.

And students also help take pictures with the camera you have in orbit around Mars.

Yes, with the HiRISE camera. And we've just submitted another high-stakes proposal that would be even larger than the Phoenix mission: It's to sample an asteroid for carbon. The idea behind that is: When the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, it was continuously bombarded by meteorites. You can see the evidence of that in the moon, that's full of potholes. But the Earth has tectonic plates, and it's a live planet, and it's covered all that, so we don't really have obvious evidence. But we know that the moon was ripped out of the Earth during an enormous collision. People argue that something the size of Mars hit the Earth. One way or another, the moon was just sort of ripped off of it.

Along with these bombardments, there's ample evidence that the surface of the Earth was molten at least a few times. It's called the magma ocean hypothesis. Under those conditions, the carbon that was in the Earth at that time had to be vaporized, which means the carbon that we're all a part of had to be injected in the Earth afterward. So we're sampling asteroids in order to figure out if we're all extraterrestrial. We're all Martians, basically.


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