“What’s the game here?” U-M prof Susan Murphy asks as she projects strings of equations and approximations in a crowded classroom in the Dennison Building.
Students in this advanced U-M statistics class write furiously in their notebooks or laptops. As the professor explains the problem’s “puissant variables” and “square root Ns,” she observes, “Half the class is confused right now. I’m standing up here, and I can see the faces.”
It’s not just students who race to keep up with Murphy. A slender, high-energy woman who sweetens her statistics lectures with “y’all” and other Southern colloquialisms, Murphy received a MacArthur “genius” grant in September. As one of twenty-four people selected this year for their “exceptional creativity” she’ll get $625,000 over the next five years from the MacArthur Foundation, no strings attached.
“It’s been twenty-two years since the last statistician got it,” Murphy notes. She figures she’ll use most of the money to hire more grad students–but does plan to commemorate her MacArthur by buying a “totally cool statistics/probability clock” to place in her office.
Murphy uses statistics to create powerful tools for treating people with chronic illnesses. It’s important, difficult work that also requires an understanding of biomedicine and the ways physicians think about treatments. “Susan picked something bigger than herself, something that will have an impact on society,” says statistics department chair Tailen Hsing. “It’s quite amazing what she has done.”
Her work at the U-M focuses on two main areas. First, she’s developing ways to collect and analyze data to help clinicians make better decisions when treating people with conditions such as alcoholism or depression. The problem, she says, is “How do we make treatments match like a puzzle together so they’re greater than the sum?”
She’s also working with colleagues to develop smartphone apps for patients. The goal is to create an electronic “coach” that will help people achieve healthy outcomes, whether it’s keeping an addiction at bay or just reminding them to take a walk.
The MacArthur selection process is famed for its secretiveness. When foundation officials contacted her, first by phone, then by email, she figured they wanted her to write a letter of recommendation for one of her postdoctoral fellows. (She writes about four a month during the fall.) She called, asked, “What am I going to have to do now?”–and got the good news.
The statistics on Murphy: She’s fifty-five years old, the oldest of five sisters, and stands five feet five inches tall. She teaches one or two statistics courses each semester, and, with her grad students and post docs, pushes ahead her research.
“She’s from a family of workaholics, and she carries on the tradition very well,” says her sister Nancy Allbritton, a biophysicist at the University of North Carolina. “When we go on family vacations, Susan comes, but she’s often working for a good half of the day.” At Christmas, the sisters gather in the Baton Rouge area, where their father, eighty, still works as a veterinarian.
They grew up in a small town in rural “Lusiana,” as Murphy says it. She was good at math, but really liked sewing and cooking too: “When I was in junior high, I was in advanced placement for sewing and advanced placement for math.” Allbritton says her sister not only combined smarts with fashion sense, she was also highly sociable. “She was one of those people–you always wanted to be like her.”
Murphy met her husband, Terry Murphy, when he crashed an honors club party at Louisiana State (he’s now a physician at Mott Children’s Hospital). The couple came to Ann Arbor in 1988, after she had taught at Penn State for eight years. She has dual appointments in statistics and at the Institute for Social Research and says that “talking to sociologists and behavioral scientists [at ISR] helps me express myself better.”
To escape her highly concentrated research, Murphy plays hockey several days a week. She started a half-dozen years ago and now plays either wing or defense on women’s and co-ed teams–“this morning I played with a bunch of high school students!” she says. It’s a new experience for her–“for the first time in my life, my brain and my body have to talk to each other,” she says–but “the real gain is the amount of energy I have for work.”
She didn’t tell her teammates about the MacArthur–but they already knew they were dealing with a very smart person. They teasingly call her “Dr. G,” as in “Genius.”
She says statistics is a good field for women and sees continued progress in women moving into key jobs. As for all those people, men and women, who plead “math anxiety,” she insists: “All college students can definitely master a basic statistics class … The largest obstacle is from having had poor experiences with mathematics” in younger years.
Besides bringing in more researchers, she expects the MacArthur will help launch new collaborations. Excited to delve into behavioral changes and brain disorders, she figures she has enough work to keep her busy for at least the next fifteen years.
“My brain constantly sees new things. That’s what turns me on,” she says. “I’m doing something interesting–and it also helps society.”
Even geniuses don’t find everything easy. Murphy readily confesses that, when she was in college, she needed a tutor “all throughout my English courses. Freshman English, I got a C and had to take it twice.”
And she struggles with a coffee addiction–it bothers her stomach, so she wants to give it up. She substitutes hot chocolate but still misses the java and wonders whether the planned app she’s dubbed a “recovery coach” for alcoholics and other addicts could help her too. “I’ve relapsed many times,” she confesses.