Lab rats 

A sometimes uncomfortably intimate look at Montana’s cutting-edge athlete-performance research facility, and its contagiously enthusiastic leader, Dr. Brent Ruby

As we wait for the heat chamber to warm up, Brent Ruby and his senior researchers, John Cuddy and Walter Hailes, regale me with stories of misadventure in the measurement of core temperature. They show me a 2-foot probe that one test subject threaded down the back of her pants and all the way up to her belly button, completely missing the intended cavity. Another subject clenched a different heat sensor between her buttocks until it fell out midway through the experiment. She refused to believe she had lost it.

The researchers show me the sensor, a purple suppository roughly the size and shape of a foam earplug, with a smooth plastic case and a glimpse of electronic components at the flat end. It costs $50 and is not reusable. We joke about the vagaries of experimental research until the conversation reaches a polite silence. It is the silence that says, okay, now go put this scientific device in your rectum.

This is Dr. Ruby’s métier—where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. He is mapping the border between what science knows about human physiology and what humans physically do. It’s an area he considers badly underrepresented in contemporary research.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

“It’s like, do a publication,” he says. “Oh, it’s got some neat graphs. It’s got stats, that’s pretty cool. But what the heck does it mean? They’re not gonna read that.”

Ruby’s hands have begun to float around in front of him, as if he is clearing away oncoming ideas as he speaks. I find myself nodding—not because I know how scientific publishing works, but because I want to agree with him. Anyone this excited must surely be right.

“The practice is three steps removed from the actual researcher,” he says. “We want to be the researcher and the bridge. When people say, ‘They say that exercise in the heat causes this,’ who’s the they? We are the they.”

He grins maniacally, as if being this ‘they’ were obviously the best job in the world.

Ruby is the head researcher at the University of Montana’s Department of Work, Performance and Exercise Metabolism. Enthusiastic and wonkish, he is exactly what you want a scientist to be. He competes in Ironman triathlons and wears alarmingly technical shoes. In his late 40s, with a shaved head and a soul patch, he seems professionally amazed. For example, he expresses surprise whenever I let slip some fact about my exercise habits or personal experience, widening his eyes and saying “Wow,” as if he were utterly astonished that I was once in a bicycle race.

He appears to think everything is cool. His lab is stocked with treadmills and high-end bicycles, but also mid-century modern furniture and an iPhone amplifier he made out of a wooden box and what appears to be a gramophone horn. He keeps saying “oh, brother” in a completely non-ironic way. Ruby is either a shameless huckster or the real deal: one of those people who is fascinated by everything, excited about everything, determined to do everything in a way that makes you want to come along with him on the off chance that you might finally do something, too. I thought we were friends, until he put me in the heat chamber.

From the outside, the heat chamber looks like a walk-in freezer with a dozen extra dials and an observation window in the door. Inside are heat lamps, an array of fans, and two treadmills with a big, red button between them. It’s the kind of button that movie characters hit at the last second, a button that stops everything. When you see that kind of button, you know you are somewhere that could make you give up.

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  • Ellen Ruby

Ruby, Cuddy and Hailes have outfitted me with a sensor of their own design that monitors my heart rate and skin temperature. I am also carrying the aforementioned core temperature device. As I walk on a treadmill under the heat lamps, all this technology transmits data about me to an Android tablet that tells the researchers how close I am to collapse.

I feel good, I think. I could do this forever, or maybe for another 10 minutes—only the man with the tablet knows for sure. As the photographer snaps pictures, Hailes notes that my heart rate goes up every time she points the camera at me.

It’s the kind of observation Ruby likes: my vain anxiety translated to quantitative physiological data. He is a man of science, but fundamentally he is an experience guy, seeking out grueling physical extremes in his own athletic life and in the work of firefighters, soldiers and endurance runners. There is the lab, and there is the world, and he is trying to pull them closer and closer together. Sometimes that means writing papers and chasing grants, and sometimes it means putting a man with a radio transponder in his core on a treadmill and heating him to 110 degrees. It’s all part of a job whose only consistent element is that Ruby visibly, gleefully loves it.

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