The College of Science is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring some of the College’s outstanding faculty with Hispanic roots. Our first featured faculty member is Dr. John Ruiz, a Professor of Clinical Health Psychology in the Psychology department.
The College of Science spoke with Dr. Ruiz to learn more about his journey to the University of Arizona, the importance of family, and why he became a psychologist.
You can learn more about Dr. Ruiz and his work here.
Dr. John Ruiz
Director, Social Risk and Resilience Factors (SuRRF) Lab
Director, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
College of Science: Tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your journey to the University of Arizona.
Ruiz: I identify as a first gen, cisgender, Hispanic/Latino of Mexican descent. I am a Professor of Clinical Health Psychology in the Department of Psychology where I serve as Director of DEI and oversee a lab focused on understanding the influence of sociocultural factors on health. Much of my research these days focuses on the Hispanic Health Paradox, the epidemiological finding documenting health and mortality advantages compared to non-Hispanics despite significantly greater risks. Given this focus, my coming to Arizona in 2015 made a lot of sense.
I am a proud southern California by birth – growing up in the malls, beach, and on strong dose of the best music ever - 80’s metal. My immediate family was small but my extended family was quite large and traditional – everyday was Hispanic Heritage day! I was a good but quite student and grew socially when I went off to UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Like many, I didn’t know how to succeed in college but I grew socially, found myself in many ways, and gained friendships that have lasted a lifetime. I also discovered academic interests and in time, confidence to pursue them. Although I had no intention of going to grad school at the time of my graduation, UCSB had planted the seeds of interest and the belief in myself that I could achieve academic goals if I applied myself. In many ways, my career remains based on this simple idea today.
After a few years as a stockbroker, I returned to school in the early 90s and went on to earn my doctorate at the University of Utah, complete internship at Western Psychiatric Institutes and Clinics, and a postdoctoral fellowship in cardiovascular behavioral medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. I went on to faculty jobs at Washington State University and University of North Texas before moving to UofA in 2015 along with my wife, Dr. Heidi A. Hamann who is a clinical health psychologist and more specifically, a psychosocial oncologist. We’ve made Tucson our home along with our two kids, Carson and Lily.
COS: When looking back on your childhood and spending time with family, are there any favorite traditions or memories that stick out to you?
Ruiz: My family and relatives have always been very close and my fondest memories are not of events, but the daily comfort of always having family around. We had little money and both of my parents came from farmworker backgrounds – my mom and her family were migrant farmworkers from Mexico and Texas who saved and planted roots in California, my Dad’s family had the border drawn around them and worked on a ranch until they established themselves in Ventura, California. We would get our family – parents, siblings, cousins, neighborhood friends who I referred to as aunt/uncle/tio/tia without question, etc - together most weekends starting Friday afternoon and continuing through Sunday until it was time to get ready for work and school again. Everyone would bring whatever food they had and there were stories, music, and commotion from the time I woke till I fell asleep and beyond. It was collectivism at its best and I honestly didn’t know that financially, we were relatively poor.
COS: Who are some of the people who have made the greatest impact on your life?
Ruiz: So many! My parents Ernie and Marge may not have known much of anything about college, psychology, or my profession but they were unwaveringly supportive. I’m pretty sure that when I got into grad school at Utah that my dad bought the entire clothing line from the bookstore and they wore it at all times. When I had an article appear in “O” magazine, my mom went to her local Vons Supermarket and bought all the copies – giving them to friends and family and lamenting that Oprah put herself and not me on the cover. They taught me to believe in myself and my dreams.
My wife Heidi is my spouse, friend, and colleague who helps me think things through and find balance between enthusiasm for work and my personal life. My kids make me try harder and to think about stewardship and making things better for the next generation as well as my responsibility to pass things on and get out of the way when the time comes.
Finally I would not the importance of all the people along the way including my students, my many mentors, family, and friends. I also appreciate a good nemesis now and then to force me to think more clearly and take action with urgency. Finally, I find inspiration and drive in music, particularly the louder stuff. Its hard to not work assertively when your soundtrack is fast thrash and metal music.
COS: What was it that drew you to your area of research and expertise?
Ruiz: Two things. First, I began my career as a health psychologist in part because of a specific experience. On April 19th, 1995 I was sitting in the student center at the University of Colorado watching the big TV when the Oklahoma City Bombing happened. I ran back to tell my lab which just happened to be a health lab and 24hrs later we were on the ground in OKC collecting interviews and biological data from survivors of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the surrounding area. This turned into my first empirical publication and my eyes were opened to the ties between psychological stress and biomarkers like cortisol. Second, during my postdoc at Pitt, I was trying to find information on average blood pressure for Hispanic males. There were very clear hypertension guidelines for non-Hispanic Whites and Blacks but nothing for Hispanics. Frustrated, I began to notice the lack of any real health information and the prevalence of a generalized model of non-White health. A decade later we published our meta-analysis documenting the Hispanic Mortality Paradox which is where I continue to devote research efforts these days.
COS: What is your favorite part of being a scientist?
Ruiz: Kids are often taught to question and be curious. Being a scientist is like the refined version of that idea. The training provides skills, methods, and tools to pursue questions but the drive remains the same. As a tenured professor, I am also afforded a degree of freedom in what I choose to investigate and there is a fair amount of creativity involved in how I go about it. Perhaps more than anything, I love the team science approach. I have the privilege of working with really smart, creative people with shared interests and complementary skillsets. It also feels full circle to me – it’s a collectivistic process where we succeed together. It reminds me of my family and I’m so grateful for that.