Student Advisory Council
Please meet our career spotlight participant for the Spring 2023 issue, Dr. John Ruiz! I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. As always, if you have any feedback or requests for future spotlights, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. John M. Ruiz is a Professor of Clinical Health Psychology and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the Psychology Department at The University of Arizona. He earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Health Psychology from the University of Utah, and completed his internship at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in cardiovascular behavioral medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Ruiz’s funded research focuses on psychosocial influences on health with an emphasis on Hispanic/Latinx health. He previously served as Chair of APA’s Committee on Socioeconomic Status and was a member of APA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Health Equity and the 2021 APA Presidential Task Force on Health Equity. He is currently the Editor-In-Chief of APA’s Health Psychology, a federally appointed member of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), and President of the Behavioral Medicine Research Council (BMRC).
You wear a lot of different hats – Editor of Health Psychology, Professor, member of the USPSTF – how do you see these roles fitting together and what are you most excited to be working towards through these various positions?
Overall, I’m excited to see where the field of behavioral medicine is going. I feel like we’ve had an era of behavioral medicine where we were quite focused on building our knowledge through research. There’s still a place for this, obviously, but I think the field has become more focused on implementing scientific knowledge to address inequities and to develop structural changes through policy and public health work. I think the biggest takeaway from our research is the importance of population health and developing systemic changes to reduce health disparities and inequities. As we saw with the COVID pandemic, population-level behavioral health interventions must be part of the solution. Vaccination numbers, particularly in the first year, pointed to a lack of integration of behavioral science and that cost lives. And, unfortunately, it cost the lives of underrepresented communities the most.
Tell me more about your journey from being a traditional academic researcher to working on policy.
Like everyone, my early years were focused on establishing myself and making sure I survived in the field. I was conducting research in cardiovascular behavioral medicine with a focus on social determinants but doing so in a more general way. However, I began to realize that the risk of cardiovascular disease was not the same for everybody and the opportunities to mitigate it were not equal for all populations. While my research was helping to identify common mechanisms, I found myself asking what mechanisms existed to make a difference, especially on a national level. I would publish a paper and find myself asking how this was going to improve the life of the everyday person. I saw policy as an important avenue to address these problems. I started taking on more roles that had opportunities for policy. These included roles such as early career opportunities with APA, service on APA’s Committee on Socioeconomic Status, and additional scientific review roles with NIH. I also began serving on specific committees and task forces within and outside of psychology focused on health equity. Eventually, this led to my involvement with the USPSTF.
If I’ve learned one lesson in 20 years of public service, it’s that there is no magical safety net group that is going to make everything okay. Unless we speak up and work towards generating solutions, they won’t be solved. I’ve come to appreciate that our work is a stewardship, meaning that in our time we have a responsibility to make things better than we found them, and the next generation will do the same.
How did your training in clinical health psychology prepare you to work in policy?
As scientists, we’re very good at critically evaluating things. Whether we’re reviewing papers, grants, journals, it’s all the same core skill of evaluating the evidence and deciding if it’s above board or not. I’m using the exact same skills on USPSTF, just in a different context and with a broader impact. As a clinical health psychologist, I think I help bring the perspective that behavior change isn’t rocket science… it’s much harder. Traditional public health messaging has focused on the straight logic path without always appreciating the broader social environment people exist in, and I try to account for this in my policy and research work. I also bring an understanding that simplicity is more effective. Whether that’s simplicity in public health messaging, medical procedures or access to care. The simpler you can make something, the easier it is for folks to access.
What strategies have you found most effective at driving change in your DEI work?
The climate and context of DEI has changed dramatically over the past 10 to 20 years. When I was in graduate school, DEI wasn’t even a conversation point. Now DEI has become more mainstream and isn’t just being raised by folks from underrepresented communities.
As a student and junior faculty, I think it’s sometimes hard to voice your opinion as strongly as you’d like for the justifiable fear of repercussions. I like to identify a “Teflon™ ally” – often a more senior colleague or faculty member – who can advance the issue without the same threat to their professional advancement. On the other side of that, I think it’s the responsibility of senior folks in more robust roles to be good stewards of their positions and use their privilege to listen to, support and even go to bat for their more vulnerable colleagues.
Regardless of your professional stage, it’s important to seek out and find allies. If I learned anything from the movie “Pitch Perfect,” the strength of a message carries better when there are more of you. So, get in sync and harmony with like-minded individuals and deliver a clear message. It’s also important to be okay with a little bit of discomfort in this work. Often that’s the place where change needs to happen. And if you’re overly comfortable, maybe you have a professional or moral responsibility given your privilege, education and skills to find a place where you think change is needed. If not you, then who?
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
I think it’s so important to learn to be okay with failure and rejection. I’ve been rejected by the best and the worst. I’ve become okay with that and there’s a freedom to losing that fear. It allows you to propose more innovative ideas and move a little more outside of the status quo.
Early in my career as a new faculty member, I proposed an NIH R01 that I had no business submitting. I got a solid and understandable “No” from the NIH. But at the end of the process, I knew the process to submit a grant and the feedback helped me to see where it was deficient. It was a great learning experience and I was successful my next round, in large part, because I had had that initial failure. I’ve carried that lesson into my career.
As the Editor of Health Psychology, I’m introducing a lot of new things that I’m excited about. For example, we recruited a massive editorial board of 150-members with a diversity of expertise, identities and career levels. We’ll see if the approach works!
What advice do you have for students at the start of their clinical health psychology journey?
Find something you’re passionate about! You’re going to be doing it for the next 30-40 years. Going off that, don’t be afraid to change course in whatever you’re doing. Early in my career, I left a position that I wasn’t particularly happy with and decided to try something else. It was scary as all get out. And if I hadn’t done that, I can’t imagine having the life I have now. It was a necessary change even if it was scary.
It’s also important to think about the responsibility that comes with your degree and incorporate that into your thinking and efforts. There’s no finish line in our work, but we should leave things better than we found them.
Finally, take a step back occasionally, and appreciate the work you’ve done and have fun while you’re doing it!