Courtesy The Blue Banner, February 18, 2015 (Student Paper)



Meet Michael Ruiz, the physicist, father and pianist

By June Bunch
Staff Writer

Michael Ruiz, a UNC Asheville award-winning professor, said when he saw magic acts, he invented ways to incorporate their light tricks into physics lecture demonstrations. He said he saw science in everything. When Ruiz wrote concertos, he measured their sound waves and created class exercises.

"I've dedicated my career to finding ways to translate math into demonstrations, slides, video clips and things like that," Ruiz said.

After falling in love with Einstein's theory of relativity in grade school, Ruiz, a young Camden, New Jersey resident, said he decided to become a theoretical physicist. Now, after teaching physics for more than three decades, Ruiz said he still aims to keep his lectures on light and sound balanced with fun and rigor. According to Ruiz, science and art, when taught with joy, can all come together.

"I picked color and sound because if you're mixing color on the computer, you're actually doing the experiment. If you do something with sound, you see the waves and hear the sound. Nothing is a simulation," Ruiz said.

The professor uses his e-book to create hands-on labs, creating a free and interactive resource for his students. His modern approach to teaching landed him on CNN in 2002 when the network featured benefits and drawbacks of online textbook teaching.

"A lot of formal textbooks, even the masterpieces, will have such a formal presentation that they can be intimidating. But if you just go in there and say, 'Let me show you this, this is cool,' then you can teach the principles on more of an informal basis," Ruiz said. Keeping formalities at ease, Ruiz refers to himself as "Doc," allows his students to make calculation approximations "among friends" and uses online game-like exercises to assist students in understanding e-book material.

Using the idea of online homework pioneered by Chunk Bennett, Ruiz and his computer programming son Evan Ruiz took to the task of creating an entirely online, updatable course and then improving upon it.

"I tweak things, correct misprints and refine the e-book while watching students doing work in labs," Ruiz said, showing off an attendance sheet full of website corrections to make.

The professor said he constantly strives to improve his course with peer resources, plenty of time on tasks and teacher availability.

"I'd say I'm first and foremost a teacher. I like to make physics and sciences easy to understand," Ruiz said.

With enthusiasm for his students' ambitions, Ruiz said he pushes more and more to publish his students' work when they come up with unique ideas.

"I published a video abstract with Halima Flynt, an art major that took the light class. She put up a camera obscura that made these beautiful upside down mountains and I got the moving cars," Ruiz said, pulling up the video.

Secondly, Ruiz said his dedication belonged to the piano. "I can have the scientist in me ask the musician a question and know the answer. Normally, as a physicist, I would collaborate with a musician to get the other part of a solution, but I find it very exciting to be both," Ruiz said. According to Ruiz, music uses both sides of the brain and harmonizes interpretations along with scales and chord structures.

"Like Larry Smarr's quote about the theory of relativity, it's scientific and aesthetic at the same time. Music is a place where science and art are indistinguishable," Ruiz said.

A mainly self-taught musician, Ruiz visited Combs College of Music to see a composition teacher and said he hoped to share his music.

"Combs College was cool. It's an artistic environment. In chemistry halls, you walk by physics labs, but there, you walk by and hear sopranos singing," Ruiz said. Leaving without acceptance, Ruiz ended up writing a concerto himself with the help and encouragement of Wayne Kirby, a Juilliard graduate.

"So I talk to Wayne and he helps me with this software where you can compose and it plays back. I write this concerto for my son and he gets in a competition and wins. Then the prize is performing it, and I did this three times with my two daughters also," Ruiz said.

After composing three concertos for young Evan, Frances and Christa, Ruiz said his proudest moment arrived when his daughter Christa, nine years old at the time played and won.

"I wrote totally from the heart for my daughter and didn't hold back. At that performance, the composer list had Ruiz, Schubert and Mahler and that just made my night. I couldn't believe I was on with them," Ruiz said.

Christa grew to become a doctoral student in voice, Ruiz said. His son Evan graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer science, and Frances came to double-major in creative writing and Spanish.

"Being a dad and a teacher makes you have more empathy to understand students. If I didn't have kids, I wouldn't know," Ruiz said, clicking to a photo with all his children in it.

Lastly, outside the world of academia, Ruiz said he spends a decent amount of time reflecting by photographing and documenting as much film his camera allows and his hard-drive stores.

After his parents recorded rare town footage from his childhood home in Yorkship Village in Camden, Ruiz said he took pride in bringing together the town's history. He gained local recognition on National Public Radio for contributing his father's documentation of the softer side of the city's past for everyone to see.

He said people might not remember all the specifics, but they'll remember the experiences. That, he said, was worth it. "If you do it with joy, it all comes together," Ruiz said, tidying his office before leaving for the day.