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Cathrine L. Walters

Brent Ruby

radio transponder in his core on a treadmill and heating him to 110 degrees. It’s all part of a job whose only consistent element is that Ruby visibly, gleefully loves it.

uby didn’t always love his work. As an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University, he drifted from prephysical therapy to pre-med, then switched his major to exercise science after taking one class. He graduated from SPU in 1989 with a B.S. in exercise science, a young wife and few concrete plans for the future. “Back then, with that degree, there were a couple of routes,” Ruby says. “You went into cardiac rehab or you went into personal training.” He worked at a bike shop in Seattle and at a tony fitness club in Bellevue, where he learned that he did not like personal training. “I made two to three times as much working at the health club, but I had no patience for it,” he says. “I didn’t like the clients. I didn’t like the reasons they were training. And I loved working at the bike shop.” So he quit the health club, kept his job at the bike shop and applied to graduate school in exercise science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. His plan was to get his master’s degree and return to Seattle to work in cardiac rehabilitation. At UNM, however, he began to consider a career in academia. He met people who encouraged his interests in the science behind exercise, and he wound up staying five years to earn his doctorate.


He also met a classmate who could not stop talking about Missoula and how great it would be to work at the college there. When Ruby saw a pre-Internet flyer advertising a position at the University of Montana, he applied. In 1994, he became UM’s first and only professor of exercise science—a position similar to being the national science laureate of a desert island. “It was real frustrating the first couple of years, because there was nothing—no equipment,” Ruby says. “We had another lab [UM’s original human performance lab] in an old locker room that had been converted to lab space and didn’t have any equipment.” Ruby remained the only full-time faculty in exercise science until 1999, when the physical therapy department hired exercise physiologist Steve Gaskell, a 1980 Olympic alternate in the Nordic Combined skiing event. In 2007, Ruby and Gaskell were joined by Chuck Dumke, a professor of sports nutrition and exercise science whose faculty directory picture shows him falling off a mountain bike. Steadily, the Department of Human Performance was attracting athlete-scientists—people who shared Ruby’s fascination with closing the gap between what we know about our bodies and what we do with them. “As that happens, the curriculum gets more and more diversified, and the research potential gets more and more diversified,” Ruby says. He’s excited now, describing an expansion in the university’s research that has paralleled—and often been propelled by—the expansion of his

curiosity. This is the Ruby Effect: a contagious enthusiasm that makes science and exercise seem like one big, coherent adventure. “We’re hot all the time,” he says, “because we’re these big, complex engines that aren’t very efficient.” He is animated now, gesturing and leaning forward in his chair as he talks about how mind-blowingly cool it is that human beings can convert chemicals to mechanical energy. “Here’s this elegant process,” he says. “Heat! Heat! Tons of heat!” The problem of what to do about tons of heat has driven Ruby’s research from the beginning. He has worked with ultramarathoners in Death Valley and Marines in basic training at Camp Pendleton, measuring how they expend and replenish energy, the ways they heat up and the reasons they sometimes fail to cool down. He is fascinated by the physiological forces behind human performance and why some people seem to excel at high-heat, high-intensity exertion while others collapse. The human body is a machine, after all—wetter and softer than the machines we build, but limited by input and efficiency like any other. Athletes talk about guts and determination the way pilots talk about the spiritual satisfactions of flight, but Ruby’s is the demystified interest of the runway mechanic. “There are only five subjects in the literature with energy expenditures above four times basal metabolic rate,” he says. “In one study, we have 35 people above four times basal metabolic rate—some as

Montana Headwall Page 35 Summer 2014

Montana Headwall