Episode 3: The Life of Dr. Susan K. Murphy

Susan K Murphy, a phenomenal mentor. Taken from obgyn.duke.edu

Susan K Murphy  received her undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Chemistry from UNC-Charlotte.  She then went on to graduate school at Wake Forest University and studied Virology(study of viruses) , where she received her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. She initially wanted to focus on vaccine development, but during her time in graduate school her son suffered from a rare form of liver cancer, causing Dr. Murphy to shift gears in her research and pursue a path more relevant to cancer research. Dr. Murphy’s postdoctoral research was done here at Duke, in Dr. Randy Jirtle’s laboratory where she studied genomic imprinting and epigenetics. Because she was studying the imprinting of a gene that was highly expressed in ovarian tissue, she ended up with an offer for a faculty position in Gynecologic Oncology here at Duke, where she studies how epigenetic factors influence early stages of ovarian cancer.

This is not the first time that Dr. Murphy has taught someone. While Dr. Murphy used to “panic at the thought of speaking in front of a group of people”, she found out that she enjoys teaching students and appreciates the curiosity that they display. She has given guest lectures at a number of courses  here at Duke.

Outside of her love for the lab, Dr. Murphy loves animals. Her family has always had pets of one sort or another.  When she was about 12, her brother had  2 boa constrictors, a reticulated python and an Indian python which she took care of.   Her mother raised “teddy bear” hamsters and her family would go to many of the local pet shops every weekend to buy supplies. After high school, she spent 10 years working before she went back to college, where she ended up working as a pet store manager and developed a love for fish and birds, and she still has fish and birds today (a 48-year old parrot, 3 cockatiels, 2 of which she hand raised, and 2 parakeets), She volunteered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium before and after it opened, initially helping to raise sea otters, then as a docent in the aviary and the microscope lab; She also worked as a shelter manager for the Monterey County SPCA; when I moved to North Carolina I worked at a veterinary office for 5 years, assisting with all forms of animal care – including surgeries and cleaning dog’s and cat’s teeth.

 While Dr. Murphy loves how her career in science allows her to come up with questions about the nature of life and things we cannot see, and then figure out how best to go about finding answers to those questions – revealing truths about life, there are some things which she would like to change about the scientific process. Chief among these would be the peer review and the lack of funding for grants. There are many scientists like Dr. Christopher Kontos who can have years of work derailed due to the peer review process, or be unable to pursue projects like through a lack of funding, which ultimately contributes to the next generation of scientists having a very pessimistic outlook on academia. 
In lab, Dr. Murphy constantly stresses the importance of safety. The reason for this was when she was an undergrad, she worked in a lab on a project studying Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium with an LD50 of 1. According to Dr. Murphy,  it is a flesh eating type organism, lives in the ocean and becomes concentrated in shellfish, particularly oysters, such that people with certain underlying risk factor (alcoholism, liver disease, older age) are more at risk of becoming infected with this bug, from eating raw oysters, or going in the ocean when they have an open wound.  Part of the research she was doing involved shucking the oysters that had dined on Vibrio vulnificus that she grew up and fed them.  She would have to shuck a bushel of oysters for each experiment (that’s about 350 oysters).  After a few hundred, I decided that the gloves she was wearing on top of the rubber gloves were too hot and restrictive so I took them off.  Shortly thereafter the oyster knife slipped and went straight into my hand, puncturing the skin.  She had to go admit to my PI that She neglected the safety requirements and now might die!  He took me immediately to the emergency room, with his published papers in his hand showing that tetracycline was the drug of choice for V. vulnificus infections and told the ER doc that he must give me tetracycline immediately!  They did, and obviously all was fine.  However, that very embarrassing incident has made her a much more aware PI and that is why she stresses lab safety to everyone who works in lab.
If you want to learn more about Dr. Murphy, feel free to shoot her an email at susan.murphy@duke.edu
Until Next Time,

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