“On the Fireline,” with Brent Ruby ’89
Amanda: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Professor Brent Ruby. He graduated from SPU in ’89 with a degree in Exercise Science. He now serves as a professor at the University of Montana, where his research includes the physical and mental toll fighting wildfires has on the people who battle these blazes. Being away from loved ones can also weigh on firefighters, which led Ruby to write a children’s book called Wrango and Banjo on the Fireline that tells the story of a canine fire crew battling wildfires with the goal of helping the children of these heroes better understand the demands of their parents’ job. Brent, thank you so much for joining us today.
Brent: Absolutely. Happy to be here.
Amanda: Well, I can imagine that when you were getting your undergrad degree at SPU in Exercise Science, you probably weren’t thinking about wildfire fighters, I’m guessing. Can you talk to us about what your original goals were for your undergrad career?
Brent: Yeah, that’s … Well, to finish was one thing. (laughs) Like so many undergrads in the field of exercise science, I wavered back and forth on what I wanted to do with that, which was probably prompted by my mom and dad asking me, “What are you going to do with that?”
Brent: But when I decided to go on to graduate school, I was engaged at the time. I was almost done with SPU and I didn’t have much more than those two things on my mind, finishing and then getting married shortly thereafter to, her name is Jo, Jo Price then, named Jo Ruby now. We met at SPU and got married right after we graduated. Then I went to graduate school at the University of New Mexico. The goal there was just finish a master’s and move back as fast as we could to Seattle, because we knew we were going to miss it. And certainly we did miss it, but when you go down a path of furthering academic studies, especially towards a terminal degree like a PhD, you really don’t have an option. You don’t get first choice usually where you’re going to move after that. When I knew that I was going to stick around for my PhD there, that meant we were going to live in Albuquerque for five years, and a lot changed as a result of that. So that’s how I ended up back here, well, not back here, but at Montana, because I applied everywhere I could and this is where I got a job.
Amanda: Yes. It’s the one that says yes, right? That’s where you —
Amanda: Where do you want to live? The one that says yes. That’s the answer. (laughs)
Brent: (laughs) Yeah, that’s exactly how it played out.
Amanda: Well, even if you didn’t know what your studies, what your research would be in the end, what appealed to you about exercise science?
Brent: I think the thing I really enjoyed about it … Well, one of the first classes that — I transferred to SPU from Colorado State, and I was a runner at Colorado State, ran indoor and outdoor track, and so when I moved to Seattle, I wanted to continue doing that. And I’d been a runner all my life and raced a whole bunch and so that was… I was very in tune with sort of the physical demands that that would require, but I never thought that was an academic path. And then I ended up in an anatomy and physiology course, and I just could not eat it up fast enough. I just loved every bit of it. I didn’t really like learning where the bones were and all that stuff, and where things are attached in the bones. That was not mechanistic enough. The mechanistic, metabolic changes that happened in this situation or in this environment, that’s what really started to get me excited. And then I got talked into taking an exercise physiology course, and it was like after day one, “Here’s the syllabus. Here’s what we’re going to be studying. Here’s the textbook.” I was enamored with that field of study. I don’t know what it was. It was like the combination of the physiology, the combination of using exercise models to better understand human physiology and smashing those two things together, it was like all the SPU angels at one time started ringing cymbals in my ear saying, “Do this. Do this. Do this.” It was impossible to ignore.
“And then I got talked into taking an exercise physiology course, and it was like after day one, ‘Here’s the syllabus. Here’s what we’re going to be studying. Here’s the textbook.’ I was enamored with that field of study. I don’t know what it was. It was like the combination of the physiology, the combination of using exercise models to better understand human physiology and smashing those two things together, it was like all the SPU angels at one time started ringing cymbals in my ear saying, ‘Do this. Do this. Do this.’ It was impossible to ignore.”
Amanda: I love hearing stories like that, because I am a huge proponent of a liberal arts education. Now, it’s not for everyone. Some people know when they’re 10 they want to be a plumber or an electrician and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. That’s fabulous. But then a lot of people have no idea what they want to do, and even my own children as they started college said, “I don’t know what I want to do.” And I said, “That’s perfect.”
Amanda: Because what you want to do may be something you’ve never heard of before.
Brent: Oh, yeah. That is exactly how I felt like it unfolded in my mind. But the other things that were available to me at SPU would not have been available at a classic state school where I’m checking off the general eds in A, B, C, and D and there’s not a lot of flex on what those general eds might be. I took a whole year of art courses when I was a senior. I took ceramics and sculpture and jewelry making and drawing, and I loved every second of every one of those classes. It was like this perfect blend of the physical sciences and sort of the other side of the brain. That sort of strategy in those last two years of my academic path at SPU completely shaped how I approach the scientific method, which, as you can imagine, there’s almost no flexibility in what the scientific method accommodates and there’s no flexibility in what scientific writing accommodates. But when it comes to planning the study and articulating the result to individuals and to the end users that we work with, like firefighters … But especially in the planning, there’s no rule. You can be as creative and out of the box as you want to be, because you’re not causing any harm. You’re not doing anything. You’re just plotting, planning, scheming, and dreaming. And in our research team, there are no rules. Anybody can say anything. We can pick the craziest metrics to measure in the muscle or the blood or whatever, and nothing’s off limits. And so we design our studies with that creative process as if we’re working on a grand sculpture that hopefully works out. I love that process. That’s the only time I can impart that artistic part of my education into my scientific career, if that makes sense. (laughs)
Amanda: Well, I think it does, and I think, like you said, when you’re coming up with a scientific study that the scientific community is going to take seriously, the rules are very rigid. It’s very finite.
Amanda: But unless you can be creative and come up with a model that no one’s thought of before, you’re just proving other people’s research. You aren’t changing things. Which brings us to, how do you tell lay people like me who have no idea about exercise science and how things are metabolized, how do you explain to them the work that you do now?
Brent: Oh, man, that’s the holy grail of those uncomfortable airplane rides with strangers.
Amanda: (laughs) Welcome to your most uncomfortable airplane ride.
Brent: (laughs) Yeah, it’s like, “So what is it that you do?” And I take a deep breath and I go, “Oh, here we go again,” or, “Here’s yet another chance where I can try to succeed.” I think the best way to explain it, because I do some stuff with high school athletes and kids and science students and whatever, and as long as there’s a scientific grain of something in their brain, then they’ll understand it. But if there’s not, then it’s hard to do that pitch. But essentially, a lot of people think, “Oh, exercise science. That means you’re like a coach or you’re like a physical therapist.” It’s like, “No. We’re a long ways away from that.” Then that opens the door to, “Okay, smarty-pants, well, tell me what you do and why you do it.”
Brent: And I think the way that I explain it is you can learn a lot about physiology. You can learn a lot about cardiovascular physiology, how blood flows, how the muscles metabolize fuel, where that’s stored, how all that gets moved around in the body. You can study all that in a resting animal or human, and that’s fine. Everything changes as soon as you stress that animal or that human. As soon as you put them in a hot room or as soon as you have them have to exercise at a moderate intensity, everything changes. All kinds of lights and buzzers and knobs and switches are being thrown, and you wouldn’t be able to observe all those fireworks, those sort of physiological fireworks, if you were just studying a docile, sedentary model. And so by turning on all those switches, we can learn an enormous amount about how the body has potential to adapt on a large scale all the way down to the level of certain and specific genes.
Brent: That’s how I use exercise. Exercise is a tool. It’s like changing the temperature in a room and measuring something. Using exercise is like a specialized wrench that we apply to the muscle to figure out what really makes it tick and how broad the response might be.
Amanda: Again, you’re talking to the lay person on the airplane and if I said to you, “So, we all know fight, flight, or freeze, and you’re talking about, instead of three categories, giant fields where there’s almost infinite possibilities of under stress and different situations and length of time in those stressful situations and trying to figure out how does the body react and how do we keep people safe in those situations?”
Brent: Yeah, absolutely. Safety, performance, and health are sort of the three major pillars. If the body is inactive, metabolic disease creeps in, and regular physical activity has been known for years and years and years that that’s a pretty potent form of high-power medicine that can change the health of the human. So exercise is an effective therapeutic to maintain human health, but by putting these individuals in certain situations, either in the field or in the lab, we can learn an awful lot about what could make the wildland firefighter healthier, how we could maybe feed soldiers better so that they’re not crumbling cognitively at the end of the day. And we also pay very much attention to whether or not there may be important sex-specific differences that occur, because males and females are very different in their physiology and there may be differences and similarities in how the muscle or some of the other systems respond to these different either metabolic or environmental stressors. So a lot of our studies focus on using both male and female subjects in specific ways, which in the world of exercise science, females are — well, in the world of applied human physiology, females are dramatically underrepresented, and we’ve always been just the opposite of that in our lab and our work over the years. We feel it’s important. You can’t just superimpose male data onto the female war fighter or the female firefighter or the female athlete. You’ve got to study the female.
Amanda: Yeah. You’ve been doing this work for more than 25 years now. Can you tell us one or two of the things that have surprised you most along the way?
Brent: Only one or two? (laughs)
Amanda: (laughs) The first two that come to mind, maybe?
Brent: Oh, golly. Specific to wildland fire or just anything in general?
Amanda: You know, whatever you want to tell us about.
Brent: Oh, man. In the world of wildland fire, I think one of the things that has been the most surprising to find out is that although the job has a high daily energy expenditure of maybe 4000 to 6000 calories a day, which is a big day. It requires you to eat a lot. It’s a high physical demanding job, and that happens for a lot of these hotshot crews for over 1000 hours of overtime in a given fire season.
Brent: Despite that amount of physical work, what seems to occur at the end of the season is an unhealthy response to the season. The blood lipid panels change in the opposite direction. The individuals tend to accumulate more body fat on the body and also in the liver, and those are not normal, healthy things. So that’s one very surprising thing that, despite the physical stress, these negative health outcomes seem to persist.
I guess the second part is overall how rewarding and how fun the research process is. I didn’t think that would upend my life as much as it has. I just enjoy that part of the job more than any other part, dreaming up these different designs and being able to work, not only in the lab, but in these really unique field settings at different high altitudes or with fire crews or wherever.
“I guess the second part is overall how rewarding and how fun the research process is. I didn’t think that would upend my life as much as it has. I just enjoy that part of the job more than any other part, dreaming up these different designs and being able to work, not only in the lab, but in these really unique field settings at different high altitudes or with fire crews or wherever.”
Amanda: Well, you’re currently in some pretty high demand for interviews as the next wildfire season approaches. What do you wish the general public understood about the mental and physical toll required to fight these fires?
Brent: That’s a fantastic question. Over the years working with these crews, I feel so pleased at how we’ve been able to understand and help them understand the physical demands and maybe how to feed and fuel and maintain an adequate amount of fluid intake and reduce overall injury. I’m so pleased at how my team has contributed to that understanding. The one part that’s disconcerting is to talk to all these crews and share with them all that research, decades of that research, and have them say, “Awesome. That’s great. I can do that. Thanks. That’s perfect. I can make all that happen.” And then I say, “Yeah, but what’s the problem?” They’re like, “Well, I can do all that without difficulty. Can you teach me how to reenter my world with my family? How do I come off of a 14-day assignment? Or how do I leave a season and come back to the regular world in a healthy way? How do I communicate with the people I love? How do I deal with the stress that’s real when I leave, and then I try to reassimilate with family and friends?” That’s really hard for people, and that’s where I, as a person that studies mostly the muscle, I don’t have those tools. And it pains me to have to hear that from these firefighters, that the psychological impacts of the season and the stress of the job and the lack of sleep and all of those things accumulate. Our research has a very difficult time of filling that gap.
If there was anything I would hope that the general public takes away from any of these discussions is an appreciation for how hard the job is, not just physically but also the psychological tolls that it takes on the folks that battle these large wildfires. So just a hope that people would take home maybe a new sense of compassion for that workforce. Oftentimes, fire crews are blamed because it’s smoky outside and no one likes wildfire smoke, and so they get upset with the agency for creating the smoke, when in fact a controlled burn might be the best thing for that community instead of making the whole place go up. And so just, I guess just an understanding of the psychological demands of the job and … You never know. Somebody might have a solution that even the scientists haven’t thought through.
Amanda: Sure. But that very psychological toll and returning to the families, we talked about it in the introduction. I’m so excited about your children’s book, because this is, again, like you were saying, you took art classes. You want to be creative in your work. Most scientists do not write children’s books. (laughs) So can you tell us the story of how Wrango and Banjo on the Fireline came to be?
Brent: Yeah, I love that story. Well, I love those dogs. Wrango and Banjo are still with us. Wrango’s getting kind of old now. He doesn’t do as much hiking as he used to, but of course, Banjo needs it every day. I was hiking with him on the mountain. This was at the beginning of COVID when, thank goodness we had those mountains. We were running around and I started laughing just watching them, as they always do, try to wrangle all these invisible sheep that they’re convinced live on the mountain beside our house.
Amanda: Right, and they’re border collies, correct?
Brent: Yeah, they’re both full border collies, so that means they come with a built-in fitness program for me. So I’m running around with them on the mountain and I just started laughing and thinking about some of the fire — I think I was working on a Fire Review article at the time as well. But watching them run around, it’s crazy how they have this innate instinct to want to do this and that. I just thought it would be hilarious if they were trying to work on a wildland fire crew, like a hotshot crew. And then I started laughing at myself and I thought, “Well, it wouldn’t be a hotshot crew then. They would be a hot dog crew.” Ha-ha.
Brent: And I’m laughing, and then I start rolling through what that might look like. Well, Banjo’s the little guy, so he’s obviously the rookie. Wrango’s the old guy. He’s obviously the crew boss. And then it just started to unfold as I’m hiking. And then by the time I got home, my wife, Jo, was like, “Well, how was the hike?” And I go, “It was good. You know, I had an interesting idea.” And she’s like, “What’s that?” I said, “I think I want to write a children’s book.” And of course, she just looked at me like I had three heads. But I’m used to that, and I’m certainly used to that when I tell science colleagues. I told a few science colleagues at the university that I was thinking about writing a children’s book with wildfire being the backdrop, and they just shook their heads like, “You’re wasting your time.” Which is never a fun thing to hear.
Brent: But I sort of took it as a challenge. I’m like, “You know what? I’ve put a lot of time into these crews and they mean an awful lot to me.” And there is a void in what I can do. And I can’t do the science to help ease the emotional stress. I thought maybe in some crazy small way, if I write a children’s book, maybe there’s that one firefighter that has difficulty describing to their children or nieces and nephews or grandchildren or whatever, “Here’s what my job is and here’s what I love about it.” Maybe it could help enhance that communication gap, which is always improved when a parent reads to a child from a regular book. So that was the whole simple reason for going down that path. And when COVID kind of lowered the capability to do research in the lab, I did have a little bit more time and I connected with an artist and, yeah, it just started to snowball.
Amanda: So if you have little children in your life, Wrango and Banjo on the Fireline by Professor Brent Ruby. Check it out.
Amanda: All right, so I’ve been waiting the whole interview to ask you this question. You’ve been working all this time about how people whose bodies are under certain kinds of stress, how they can better prepare, how they can get through that better. Do you have lessons that you’ve learned that you wish all the everyday people knew? Things that we can all use in our everyday life that would make us healthier?
Brent: Oh, man. Yeah, I think having raced my whole life up until, I don’t know, last 10 years or so, five years, I was always, always training with a purpose that was so single minded, which was, “Go faster, go faster. Train this way to be able to go faster.” And when you train like that, that’s fine and going fast is really fun. But when you just get out and hike with a couple of dogs and plot a potential story, there is so much joy in being able to tap into regular physical activity when you can. Making that a priority and, I mean, it’s a little bit easier for me maybe than folks in a large metropolitan area, because within minutes I can be on the mountain and our dogs have always lived without leashes and they run free in that environment and I can just kind of run free on the mountain. But just the simplicity of that. The movement of the body, the contraction of the muscle in that setting, allows you to share yourself with that environment, but it also allows you to listen to that environment and take in what it has to offer.
Racing in Seattle, I owned running shoes that from day one were never dry because it was always raining. I remember getting ready to start a practice on the track or a run on the road and it would just be miserable and raining and whatever, and I felt like garbage. Never once have I ever finished an exercise training session or hike or bout that at the end of it or in the middle of it or within seconds after starting it, it didn’t become enjoyable and enhancing. I think that’s probably one of the biggest takeaways. It’s the kind of investment that pays dividends in terms of overall human health, but the things that I can’t measure, that we can’t measure that change within the brain that just make you a happier person. It’s like the physical activity has all the solutions, or a great deal of them.
Amanda: Yeah. We can’t turn off the internet. We can’t turn off the news. We can’t turn off everything going on in the world. We can’t go back in time so that it’s not in our face all the time, but what we can do is put back that physical activity that helps our brain and body deal with all that stress.
Brent: It’s a physical meditation that is … It’s like every time you do it, the body gets to recite and listen to this metabolic poetry that just unfolds. A lot of times you can’t interpret it and you don’t need to. You just get to be a participant in it. And at the end of the sonnet, you just get to smile. (laughs) It’s as simple as that.
Amanda: I just heard a quote the other day, and it might be that everyone has heard this and it’s just new to me, but the quote is, “The best exercise for you is the one you’ll do.”
Brent: Yeah. (laughs)
Amanda: So instead of saying, “What’s best for my metabolic makeup or my body shape?” or anything like that, really the best exercise is what you’ll do on a regular basis.
Brent: Yep. Whatever makes you happy at the end of it or in the beginning of it or in the middle of it.
Amanda: Or that you’ll actually do. (laughs)
Amanda: What’s next for you? What’s the big dream for the future?
Brent: Oh man. I want to write more. There’s no doubt about it. And I love writing the science part of things. That’s fine. That’s all fine and good. But I really want to do a bit more writing. I don’t know if that’s with kids’ books or other book directions. I feel like I’ve accumulated an enormous number of crazy stories in fire, and the physiology along with that would tell some really unique stories. I just super enjoy any sort of writing. Love all that.
Our research continues to churn away. We have lots of projects coming up in different environments, in high-altitude studies, in cold-weather studies in Alaska, studies with back-country hunting in Alaska. Yeah, so we have enormous number of projects building up. That means I get to meet new advanced students, both undergraduate and graduate students that are just super motivated and at that point in their life when I can remember what seems like not so long ago, but it is a long time ago, just being able to sort of present them with that match that might turn their career into a path that could lead to the rest of their life. I super enjoy that. I always say, “Here’s this match. I’m not really going to strike it for you. You need to take that step. But once that flame starts, hopefully it’s going to be hard for you to extinguish, because it can change the way you think. Hopefully it opens up new doors to just opportunities for you down the line.” There’s students that come to our team with enthusiasm. I mean, they could be lacking in a lot of different areas, but if they’ve got enthusiasm for what we’re doing and what the research questions are, there’s no substitution for that.”
“I get to meet new advanced students, both undergraduate and graduate students that are just super motivated and at that point in their life when I can remember what seems like not so long ago, but it is a long time ago, just being able to sort of present them with that match that might turn their career into a path that could lead to the rest of their life. I super enjoy that. I always say, ‘Here’s this match. I’m not really going to strike it for you. You need to take that step. But once that flame starts, hopefully it’s going to be hard for you to extinguish, because it can change the way you think. Hopefully it opens up new doors to just opportunities for you down the line.'”
Amanda: It must be fun to have that constant stream of young push towards new things, dreams and anticipation and energy towards finding new answers.
Brent: Yeah, it’s very cool. Oftentimes, a student, maybe they don’t have the background for a particular measurement technique that you’re going to use, but sometimes that’s an asset because they can think about it in a different way and they might offer a solution that you hadn’t even thought about.
Amanda: Right, because they’re thinking from a completely different angle, yeah.
Brent: Yep, absolutely.
Amanda: Well, Professor Ruby, Brent, thank you so much for joining us, and I hope you do write more and I hope you come back and talk to us about it. But let’s end with our famous last question that we ask all of our guests: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?
Brent: Oh, man. Go for a walk and listen to some live Bruce Springsteen.
Amanda: Get yourself a Spotify account and get outside.
Brent: Well, that and just appreciate the people that have been a part of your life that maybe didn’t mean to be. I think about the professors that I had at SPU, like Bob Weathers, who’s retired. Bob Weathers was my Exercise Physiology professor that changed everything. Michael Caldwell, who, if you’re listening, get ahold of me. I want to say thank you.
Amanda: Can I say I worked for Michael Caldwell when I was at SPU? I was one of his student workers.
Brent: Oh really? (laughs)
Amanda: I was.
Brent: Oh my gosh.
Amanda: Sorry, I just had to say that. I love him. So great.
Brent: I walked into that Art Appreciation class and it changed my whole world. Just thank you. Thank you to those people. I guess the advice is just be thankful for the people that wander into your lives and drop these little morsels of, “I’m going to make you a better person. I don’t know how, but here you go. Here’s some seeds.”
Amanda: Yeah, right.
Brent: SPU did that for me in such an enormous way. So yeah.
Amanda: I can guarantee, if with no other evidence than this conversation, that you have a lot of people out there who would say the same thing about you, crossing paths with you in your classes and in your research. So thank you for the work that you do, both for all the firefighters out there and military and those who will benefit from your research, and from all the students who very specifically and personally were able to find their path through you. Thank you so much for joining us today.