Three years ago, the telephone rang in Susan Murphy’s office at the University of Michigan.
“The people at the MacArthur Foundation called me,” said Murphy, H.E. Robbins Distinguished University Professor of Statistics and a professor of psychiatry. She’s also a College of Science 2016 LSU Hall of Distinction inductee. “I picked up the phone. I was standing up. Then, she tells me about the fellowship and I just sat on the floor. I was standing up. I just sat on the floor.”
Sitting on the floor, Murphy had just been told she’d been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius award” of $625,000 to be paid in quarterly installments over five years, no strings attached. “The MacArthur Award gave my work validation,” Murphy said. “That’s very rare for people in straight, data science.”
In announcing Murphy’s MacArthur award, a spokesperson for the University of Michigan said, “Murphy, who has appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Medical School, is developing new methodologies to evaluate courses of treatment for individuals coping with chronic or relapsing disorders such as depression or substance abuse.
“In contrast to the treatment of acute illness, where clinicians make a single decision about treatment, doctors treating chronic ailments make a sequence of decisions over time about the best therapeutic approach based on the current state of a patient, the stage of the disease and the individual’s response to prior treatments.”
Her research group is currently involved in the development of a mobile application that uses data from wearable activity sensors, like FitBit and Jawbone, to propose physical activity and to support behavioral changes that will have a positive impact on health.
“I never thought I was a genius,” Murphy laughed. “If you think you’re a genius, you never get anywhere. I mean, I thought it was wonderful. The award means you get opportunities you might never have gotten anywhere else.”
The MacArthur Foundation doesn’t refer to the grant as a “genius award,” but the press often does. Murphy’s award is made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur fortune was generated largely by the MacArthurs’ insurance companies. Catherine was a bookkeeper for one of the early companies and worked closely with her husband. John and Catherine died in 1978 and 1981, respectively.
Murphy spent her childhood in Marksville, La., where her dad, Allan Allbritton, was a veterinarian. “My Mom, Irene, was a stay-at-home mom and now is currently Dad’s receptionist,” Murphy said.
The family moved to Missouri and from there to Gonzales, La., where Murphy went to East Ascension High School. After high school, she went to Nichols State University for a year to study accounting. Then, LSU. “The math department at LSU was great,” Murphy said. “Dr. [Ray] Fabec was a great teacher. He wrote me a letter to go to grad school at the University of North Carolina in 1984.” Murphy’s next stop was Pennsylvania State University for seven years.
“I was always good in math,” she said. “I didn’t realize math could be a career until my junior year at LSU. I was an accounting major. Once I realized that you could have a career in math as an adult I switched majors; I thought, math ‘is what I’m good at!’”
“My parents were so supportive. That helped. The Rotary Club gave me a scholarship to study math in Germany after graduating from LSU. I wasn’t a deep thinker,” Murphy continued. “I just wanted to work on math problems. I was rather immature both in high school and college.”
Murphy’s memories of LSU include meeting her future husband, Dr. Terrance Murphy, then an undergraduate in pre-medicine. Terrance Murphy’s medical degree is from LSU in New Orleans.
“At LSU, I was a runner,” Murphy said. “I ran the lakes, which are beautiful. I had a great roommate, ran every morning through the live oaks, and enjoyed being a student in the math department.”
And there’s the homecoming equation. “When I come home to Louisiana,” Murphy said, “everyone is so nice. Even on the plane from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, everyone is so friendly.”