Faculty Focus: Dr. Susan Murphy
Susan Murphy fell in love with biology in third grade. It happened when she cut open an earthworm. There were five hearts – “aortic arches,” as she calls them – and the fascination of that discovery precipitated another. “I’m going to be a doctor,” she decided.
The lesson on earthworm dissection put Murphy on a path toward medicine, a path she followed to Texas State University.
“Earthworm dissection sold me. It was just too cool,” says Murphy, a professor of biology at Our Lady of the Lake University. “I was going to be a doctor from then on. I was dead set on it. But then when I took comparative anatomy (in college), I started thinking that maybe I didn’t want to become a doctor.”
Medicine intrigued Murphy, in part, because it was a service profession. She wanted to help others. But some of her pre-med peers seemed to possess other motivations. “They wanted to be called, ‘doctor,’ and they wanted to make a lot of money,” she says. “I didn’t hear from them a desire for the essence of the profession. Being a doctor is a service job first. And a lot of people I was in class with didn’t seem to get that.”
Other factors led her to reconsider medicine. “I thought that being a doctor was going to make it very difficult for me to have a personal life because I was always going to be worried about my patients,” she says. “My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to have a family.”
A good student with an unusual devotion to anatomy – a professor was shocked to learn she read “Gray’s Anatomy” for fun outside of class.
“I was that kid that was always hanging out in the lab. I was dissecting my shark on weekends. On Saturday night I was doing my genetics fruit flies stuff instead of going out,” said Murphy. “I love biology. My big tool is the microscope. I studied characteristics of sperm biology. I came home in the summers (to San Antonio) when I got engaged. I would come home to see my fiancé, but I would take an electron microscope class at Texas State and visit him on weekends. I was kinda nerdy.”
Her dedication in the classroom led professors to ask Murphy to teach a lab. The experience spun her in another direction. As Murphy taught anatomy and physiology labs during her junior year, students asked questions she hadn’t considered. “I thought that was really cool,” she says. “So I was learning. I seemed to be pretty good at teaching because I was getting good evaluations, and thought that was the way I wanted to go.”
After completing her undergraduate studies, Murphy remained at Texas State to pursue a master’s in developmental biology. She was hired to teach zoology and continued teaching anatomy and physiology labs. “I decided I wanted to teach college,” she says. “I thought it would work well for having a family.”
Murphy earned a second master’s (biomedical sciences) and a PhD (zoology) at the University of Hawaii. From there, she came to OLLU in 1995, married and six months pregnant, and began teaching anatomy and physiology.
She still teaches Anatomy and Physiology, but she also teaches some of the General Biology courses, along with Comparative Anatomy and Organ Physiology. “I also have my specialty class: Biology of Reproduction and I recently co-taught a Human Sexuality class with Karissa Gilmore from Psychology,” said Murphy. “Much of biology fits with other disciplines so I hope we can get more opportunities for that kind of interaction.”
She sees a little of herself in many students: aspiring doctors who discover they don’t want to practice medicine or realize they are not suited for the profession. Part of her calling is to help biology students recognize other career options.
“One great alternative is to become a physician’s assistant,” Murphy says. “It doesn’t have the same liability issues. Doctors have all kinds of liability issues. Physician’s assistants do not, but still make really good money.
“The former students we had who’ve become physician’s assistants love what they are doing. That’s a great way to go.”
“We’ve also had biology students become lab technicians. There have been art students who take some biology courses because they want to get into prosthetics,” said Murphy. “Sometimes we have to think outside the box. If we have students who don’t do really well in biology but who are really good in English, I start talking to them about scientific writing or journalism, areas where they could be the writers of what comes out of the scientific community.”
Her students have chosen many different career paths after leaving The Lake. “I could probably name at least a dozen off the top of my head who have become doctors,” said Murphy. “One is in osteopathy. One is a pediatrician. One is an optometrist. Another is in the Navy doing dentistry. Neurobiology, chiropractic, and family practice...you name it. And we have students who are working with SAWS (the San Antonio Water System) and have worked with hazard level 4 materials (viruses and stuff). There are lots of avenues if you really look around.”
“My greatest satisfaction in the classroom is when somebody is smiling and I can tell they’re into it, that they’re enjoying it and they get it. That’s real satisfying. Mostly, it’s the look on their faces. You can tell when somebody likes what they’re doing and you can tell when they don’t. I like the smiles. They’re pretty cool.”