Interview with Patrick Murphy
Seattle University is a Jesuit university with almost 8,000 grads and undergrads. Patrick Murphy, PhD is an Assistant Professor there, with a passion for teaching and undergraduate research. We discussed his career path that has culminated in teaching pharmacology to nursing students. He also shares some of his advice in landing a teaching job at a liberal arts institution.
JL: How did you get into research?
PM: I went to a liberal arts college in Ohio [Wittenberg], with corn fields surrounding it. We had a small, but very good biology department that said if you want to be a physician, which is what I was planning to be at the time, you should really do some research. I spent a semester at NIH as an undergrad, and just got hooked. The post-doc I was working with at the NIH got a position at Penn, so I worked with him the following summer there. It really became clear that I wanted to do basic science. Having good role models at the NIH and Penn helped me get a feel for what I wanted to do in grad school, and who I wanted to be like.
JL: And you went to grad school at Michigan?
PM: Michigan. The research I did as an undergrad at NIH and Penn was with faculty who self-identified themselves as cell and molecular pharmacologists, so I decided I should become one too. The schools I applied to were those identified as being the most productive for grad student scholarship. In truth, the school I chose in the end was based off the visit to campus. I loved the enthusiasm the faculty had for the graduate students. It was akin to the enthusiasm my undergrad research mentors had for working with undergrads. As a perspective grad student, the priority of the Michigan faculty really felt like it was on the research of their graduate students. I worked with Bill Pratt who taught me more about science and the process of doing science than I thought possible. A lot of my research philosophies, and idiosyncrasies, can be traced back to my time with Bill. The [pharmacology] department had a cult of personalities, and the characters made it a lively environment. They were doing important work, but they weren’t taking themselves too seriously. It’s something I loved about being there and I’ve tried to replicate it here. Dr. Pratt asked me to stay to do a post-doc. He was winding down his lab, so I was able to have the independence commensurate with being a post-doc. I would not typically recommend this path unless there are extenuating circumstances.
JL: Did you know you wanted to do a teaching research program?
PM: I knew that I wanted to go to a place similar to my undergrad. For postdocs applying for tenure track faculty positions at liberal arts schools, it is important in your applications to make clear your connections to the type of place you are applying to. If you went to a liberal arts college for your bachelor’s, it’s a bonus, because you have an appreciation of what it is to go to one, and the sort of expectations students have of their faculty. Ironically, there is a double-edged sword to being a tenure-track faculty applicant with a long list of publications and glowing references from your PhD mentor and postdoc advisor. Although every undergrad school loves to see that, there is also a concern of whether this person can be successful and HAPPY with the resources that a smaller school can provide. How much do they value working with undergraduates and being their own lab manager and being their own senior researcher? How comfortable will they be teaching new students every year how to use a pH meter? And to explain to students every year the consequences of not using the pH meter correctly is that the experiments they had been doing for the last six months were not successful. I know it can be hard for graduate students and post-docs who desire to teach at liberal arts colleges to have meaningful experiences with undergrads, but it’s critical that their intent and experience working with undergrads comes across in their job applications.
I knew I wanted a faculty position at an undergrad-focused university. After I was a TA for an undergrad pharmacology class at Michigan, I stayed involved in the course and had a teaching mentor in the course director, Dr. Martin Shlafer. He took me under his wing and taught me how to teach a class. It allowed me to be successful in getting a part-time faculty position at a local community college while doing my postdoc. Much to the chagrin of my PI, I taught a night class in intro biology. Nothing will make you more prepared to be a quality faculty member than teaching a class—going through the entire process on your own, start-to-finish.
My wife wanted to be close to her family, so we decided as a family to move to Seattle[her hometown], regardless of my individual job prospects. As long as one of us had an offer, we were moving. This was a huge leap of faith and I lost a lot of sleep over it. Was I really going to put my career trajectory at risk? Getting married and having a child while being a postdoc impacted my priorities and made me more willing to compromise. I would recommend identifying the type of school you want to be at and identifying the broad geographic region you want to end up. The wider the net the better your chances. The idea of expecting to get the “post-postdoc” job you want in the one city you want to end up in—I wouldn’t recommend it, even if you’re a science superstar. So, the question becomes what and how much are you willing to compromise. For me, I accepted a position as an adjunct professor at Seattle U. At the time, this was a risky decision for my career but a good one for my family. Choosing family over career isn’t something I had considered pre-child. It turned out better than I could have imagined, both for my family and career, but there was no way of predicting that back then. It’s also given me a lot cover during times when work gets busy. That is, when I’m immersed in lesson planning or in the process of submitting a grant, or now, submitting my tenure file, or a publication necessary for tenure, where my emphasis is more on my career than on my family, knowing that we are in the city that my partner wants to be in and she’s able to be with the people she wants to be with, certainly makes things a little easier for us. If I was going through the tenure process at a college in the middle of a big cornfield, where my partner was there solely for me, things would be harder for us as a family. That was something I would not have considered when a grad student or a post-doc.
JL: What happened after your adjunct position?
To go back a step, prior to being even considered for that job,, I got in contact with the biology department chair at Seattle U. It was pretty much a cold-call but, knowing that we ideally wanted to end up in Seattle and that there were a limited number of schools with a focus on the liberal arts and undergraduate research, he seemed like a logical person to talk to. I did not ask him about jobs they were hiring for at the time; instead, I asked questions about school and department, just trying to get the lay of the land. This turned out to be life changing. We had a really good email exchange. I think what started it off was that I was asking specific questions about the school and it was clear to him I was emailing him specifically, and I attached my CV so he knew who I was. A couple months later, after his department completed their tenure track job search for the year, he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in being an adjunct for the upcoming school year.
I began teaching my all-time favorite class [Cell & Molecular Biology] as an adjunct at Seattle U, and then word got over to the nursing program that someone who taught in the nursing pharmacology courses at Michigan was now 2 doors down as an adjunct in biology, so they asked me to apply to a tenure track position. I’ve been here ever since. It was by pure luck that the nursing school was at a point in their development that they wanted a cell & molecular pharmacologist to teach pharmacology for them, rather than a nurse.
One thing that I never considered, coming from a graduate program where about 40% of the faculty were female and there was a healthy mix of PhDs, MDs, and MD/PhDs, was the role of gender and professional diversity in a department. At present, I’m the only male tenure/tenure track faculty member in our College of Nursing, and the one person who is not a nurse, and the only person who does bench science—it It makes for a different sort of environment to be in. The types of colleagues and administrative support you have in your department can make or break your chances for success. It also can impact your day-to-day happiness.
JL: Could you describe your current research program, because it is pretty diverse?
PM: My research involves the function of the molecular chaperone HSP90, specifically its role in mediating steroid receptor signaling.
JL: That’s a good project to get nursing students involved.
PM: Absolutely. Studying a signaling pathway that is involved in 30 major diseases helps capture the attention of clinically-focused students. The area that I am most excited about pursuing is hsp90 and steroid receptor pharmacogenetics, the individual’s response to drugs. With regards to the use of steroids in treating asthma, dermatologic disorders, some patients respond more than others and it’s fertile ground for future projects.
JL: What do you enjoy about working with undergrads?
PM: Before getting into that I should say that, like at a larger school, there is the expectation of producing research publications as a tenure track faculty member at a liberal arts college. The thing that changes at a liberal arts school is the expectation of the speed that research will get done, as well as the scope of the questions being asked and the need for involving undergrads as research assistants and publication coauthors. Even though you are doing peer reviewed work that is scientifically meritorious, impact factor is not as significant. The emphasis on tying in teaching to your research (and vice versa) is much more significant. A common phrase you hear from faculty at schools like Seattle U is that the research lab is an extension of the classroom. We can do an intensive, specialized version of what we are talking about in cell biology class [lab]. Provided you have the basic instrumentation and a nominal supply budget, this provides a lot of freedom in the research projects we choose. We get to ask questions that are interesting to you and the students. You can play a little bit more. Certainly there is an expectation of external funding and there may be one project in particular that helps to sustain the lab and to maintain extramural support. Since my tenure home is in nursing I’ve made conscious effort to do projects that will interest nursing students in addition to chemistry, biochemistry, and biology students. No matter how great of a researcher you are, your #1 priority at a school like ours is becoming an excellent teacher. Important teaching occurs in the lab, but classes and students always come first.
I enjoy being able to take undergraduate students through the entire scientific process. This includes experimental design and going through the IRB approval process even. Working with undergrads reminds you why you got into working in science. There is definitely an excitement that students get from developing a project themselves, and seeing their growth is personally gratifying. Students will get really excited about doing techniques for the first time. It reminds you how excited you were to put your first poster together, to get an abstract accepted for a meeting, or to come in for a 2 a.m. time-point. Undergrads tend to have a sense of idealism about science that is refreshing. Another thing I enjoy on a personal level is to introduce students to a vocation that I am passionate about, so you really do end up being able to be a mentor and coach in some ways. It becomes a fun thing to do, not something you think of as a job.