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Partnerships with Israel, Mexico key to UArizona’s global environmental strategy

Joaquin Ruiz, Ph.D.

Joaquin Ruiz, Ph.D., the University of Arizona’s first vice president for Global Environmental Futures, gets excited about the work of its partners around the world, such as farmers in Israel’s Arava region.

“There are a bunch of kibbutzes in the Negev that are growing stuff on rocks and with salty water — it’s unbelievable,” he says.

Ruiz, a professor of geochemistry at the university since 1983, was dean of the College of Science for 20 years before taking on this new role in October 2019. His UArizona research and education portfolio includes Biosphere 2, where he is the director and Thomas R. Brown chair, and the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill.

The new global effort, part of a 10-year strategic plan, “revolves around, simply, creating partnerships with the University of Arizona that will benefit the environment,” says Ruiz, including one with the Jewish National Fund and the Arava region that has launched the JNF Joint Institute for Global Water, Food and Energy Security.

“It’s pretty exciting — in fact it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done in a long time,” says Ruiz, explaining that the institute focuses on environmental resilience, with research on “new technologies for growing food with less water, and also to create electricity. They are going to add to those technologies to see if they can produce better water for the crops.”

“We have this fantastic technology called agrivoltaics, that was sort of invented by a faculty member in geography, in Biosphere 2,” Ruiz says. Just as spaces in parking lots can be covered with solar panels, he explains, “If you do the same thing over agriculture you create a microclimate. You can grow different things in hot weather and you can extend the time of growth, and you use less water because it’s in the shade and the plants don’t need all the sun that you think they would, in areas like southern Israel and Arizona.”

The institute teaches these methods to students from Third World countries — mostly from Kenya. Locally, UArizona will introduce this technology to Native American farmers, Ruiz says.

Establishing the institute “is really a game changer in the world,” especially with Ruiz at the head, along with Talia Tzour Avner, JNF’s chief Israeli emissary, says Itzik Becher, JNF’s Southwest director of major gifts.

Students from the Arava region visited Tucson about 18 months ago, and five or six UArizona professors subsequently went to Israel, Becher says. “It was almost like catching fire. The synergy … will help infuse new life and new avenues [of food, water, and energy production] for the United States, Israel, Africa, and of course other countries all over the world.”

Helping solve Mexico Citys garbage problem

Another partnership Ruiz oversees is with Mexico City, where he grew up. The greater city is still 50% agricultural, he says, and that industry produces massive amounts of waste.

Using precision agriculture technologies, “I think we can actually reduce that garbage by more than 50% by dehydrating it and creating water, and then using the garbage to grow high protein food like mushrooms, insects, and fish,” Ruiz says. If successful, other megacities in developing countries, such as Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Lima, Peru, can adopt these technologies, he adds.

Meanwhile, at UArizona’s Biosphere 2, although walking tours are suspended due to the coronavirus, “the research is going gangbusters,” says Ruiz. “The place is so big that we can do social distancing in those laboratories without a problem.” Biosphere 2 recently began offering evening driving tours.

Jewish heritage passed along to the next generation

Ruiz’s mother came from an Orthodox Jewish family in New York, and her parents, immigrants from Austria and Poland, disowned her when she married his father, a non-practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, his mother committed to bringing him up as a Jew.

“I was bar mitzvahed, I did the whole shebang,” he says.

He was a peace offering to his grandparents, he explains. When he was about 5 years old, his mother flew back to New York with him. “That’s when the whole family got reunited, if I was brought up as a Jew.

“Growing up in a family where everybody got along [after that], I think it made me a little bit of a diplomat. I could understand everybody’s viewpoint,” he says.

Ruiz and his wife, Bernadette, also a non-practicing Catholic, have raised their son, Peter, as a Jew. “Frankly, she’s the one who pushed harder for Peter to be Jewish than I did. So there you go — things go around and come around,” he says.

Peter, who is in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, glories in all things Jewish, including a 2011 Birthright Israel tour. He is a longtime participant in the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Taglit day program for adults with special needs, although the family is currently quarantining because of Peter’s high-risk status, Ruiz says.

Ruiz served for three years on the board of the Tucson J.

“Joaquin is an incredibly thoughtful and caring person,” says Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the J. “He had a wonderful perspective on our role in the [Jewish] community, our role in the broader community, and his input was always valuable, well respected, and well received.”

Ruiz’ role on the board did not encompass Taglit, “but he had a particular concern and interest in the success of that program,” Rockoff says. “Both Joaquin and Bernadette are incredibly supportive parents.”

While visiting Israel’s Arava region to help set up the joint institute, Ruiz says, he spoke of his mother’s serendipitous friendship with a Jewish family in Mexico City. As a baby, Ruiz came down with chicken pox and she went to the corner pharmacy, which happened to be owned by Jews, to get his medicine. While there, she put some money in a JNF collection can, sparking a conversation. “The owner of the pharmacy then became my mother’s best friend,” he says. The day after he told the story, he says, members of the kibbutz he was visiting planted a tree in his mother’s honor.