The key, she says, is pursuing and doing the things you are interested in, even when you don’t know where they will lead. After all, that’s what worked for her.
She was in high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when she learned about Chaminade University at a college fair. “I don’t think I ever would have heard of Chaminade except for that booth.”
She wanted to study human impacts on the environment, and she wanted to move away from the desert. Chaminade offered a major in environmental studies, and she was sold.
Seeking out opportunities and going after them has been a life-long pattern for Ruiz-Jones. It’s especially impressive when you learn she was raised by parents who didn’t complete college in a family without the trappings of success.
Her mother was always supportive but struggled with bipolar disorder. Ruiz-Jones’ father went to prison when she was 12, which she says had a significant impact on her. “I really appreciated the ability to choose where I put my attention,” she says.
In one of her first classes, Dr. Gail Grabowsky, now dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, told the students it was great they were there. “She told us, ‘You’re going to love what you do, you’ll make an impact, but you’re not going to become rich.’”
“That was fine with me,” says Ruiz-Jones. “I felt like as long as I loved what I did and made an impact, that was what was important to me.”
During her freshman year, she applied and was selected for a five-week summer program in India. “The goal of that trip was to see what small non-profits were doing in India,” she says. “It was really about human well-being and the different ways people were contributing by doing service to the really poor. It was an incredible experience.”
But the summer after her sophomore year at Chaminade, she started doing undergraduate research at Kewalo Marine Lab. That’s where she first got excited about biology and organisms in coral reefs.
At the end of her summer research at Kewalo Marine Lab, her advisor Dr. Mike Hadfield invited her to continue there in an internship. He also encouraged her to take all the science courses she could, which pushed her into a fifth year of college.
She didn’t mind, though, because she wanted to participate in a Sea Education Association summer-at-sea sailing program that focused on environmental studies. She spent four weeks sailing from Hawai‘i to San Francisco on a tall ship sailboat.
“Wow, that was a really powerful experience,” she says. “We did biological oceanography research. I focused my project on invertebrates that live on the surface out in the middle of the ocean.”
After graduating from Stanford University with her PhD, she received the Thinking Matters Teaching Fellowship and spent four years team-teaching there. That, she says, is where she developed her identity as a teacher and her love for teaching.
During the summers, she started collaborating with scientists at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology.
That’s how she ended up back at Chaminade, as an assistant professor this time, in Fall 2020.
Right now, she says, her goals are to find ways to integrate her passion for research, coral reef ecology, and restoration into her teaching. And she’d love to take students on field trips to neighbor islands or other Pacific islands. “If we could do something like that where we took students to more remote Pacific Islands for environmental education, that’d be very cool.”