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Dr. Maureen Murphy: Scientist and Teacher

Wistar offers the perfect blend of qualities for cancer researchers to thrive.

Challenging science paired with a social cause is the winning formula that propels Dr. Maureen Murphy in her quest to cure cancer. A researcher for over 25 years, Murphy leads research projects on the genetics of the tumor suppressor protein p53 with the goal of improving and personalizing cancer therapies for understudied populations who often have the highest cancer burden, particularly those of African and Ashkenazi Jewish descent. She also serves as a mentor, actively guiding scientists as they navigate the joys and challenges of scientific research. Grit and kindness, she says, is what she searches for when adding talent to her team.

Murphy and her lab thrive in Wistar’s highly collaborative environment, a space that actively rejects scientific ivory towers and welcomes those with curious minds and innovative imaginations. Wistar science pushes forward the frontiers of research in pursuit of knowledge to combat and eradicate cancer. This National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. Murphy, Ira Brind Professor and program leader of the Molecular & Cellular Oncogenesis Program of the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center, on her breast cancer research, mentorship, and motivations to understand – and ultimately cure – the disease.

As a breast cancer researcher, what are some of the most significant accomplishments in managing and treating breast cancer in your opinion? Put another way, why should breast cancer patients feel more hopeful today than – say – 10 years ago?

The five-year survival rate for breast cancer has improved dramatically in the last two to three decades – possibly more than any other cancer. I find three most promising things: first is the development of more sensitive ways to detect breast cancer early (including the new revelations about the difficulty for a standard mammogram to detect cancer in women with dense breasts, like Katie Couric … and like me); second is the power of patient advocacy groups and other organizations whose fundraising really powers the research and the patients; third is the discovery of therapies for breast cancer that are not as toxic to the body as the conventional chemotherapy that used to be standard. This allows for more effective therapy that is tolerated better by the body.

What attracted you to focus on cancer research? 

When I was a kid, I realized I had more energy than most people. At a young age, I knew I was going to have to choose a career where I could apply all my energy – and as Austrian poet Rilke says, “scrape the bottom of my soul”– at the problem. I could not have chosen a more worthy or more fulfilling cause. I think what most people don’t realize is that, as a scientist, you are not just performing experiments.  You are teaching. You are giving young people opportunities. You are always mentoring and caring for people and making the world a better place with your efforts. Can you imagine a better thing to which to devote your life?

As a scientist, what drew you to be a Wistar researcher?

I realized that the most important thing about the place I worked at was the leader – the President/CEO. This had to be someone with three things: good leadership skills – someone able to get people to work together; someone with vision ¬– what aspects were going to be critical for the success of the cancer center; and finally, great science from the leader’s laboratory itself – science that impressed and even daunted me. I found this trifecta exceedingly rare. Most cancer center directors had one while some had two. Exceedingly few had all three. I held out for a job where the leader had all three, and I’ve been thrilled to be here every single day. 

What role do your posts docs and students play in advancing treatments and/or a cure?

They have the most important role! They are on the ‘front lines’ of the battle, coming up with questions and new hypotheses to test. Can we screen for chemotherapeutic drugs that kill tumors with particular genetic mutations? Can we screen for drugs that improve the efficacy of immune methods to kill cancer?

My job is to teach them how to ask that question in the best way, whether it be the simplest way, sometimes the most informative way, and often, the most cost-saving way. People do not understand how much money it takes to do all the research to move drugs into the clinic, so cost-effectiveness means you get more information out of your research dollars. Sometimes, I hear postdocs and students asking each other how they would answer a particular science question. Then, I hear one of my trainees say, “Yes that’s a good experiment, but do you realize how much it would cost?” and I smile.

Good job, Grasshopper.

Any advice for others interested in a career in cancer research?

My advice is to get into a lab as soon as you can. Do a one-day visit to a lab. Then work in a lab over spring break. Then work in a lab over the summer in a paid internship. The more research you do, the more you will fall in love with it. Imagine a job where you get to figure out how nature works, what God is thinking, and at the same time know that your work will one day benefit the lives of others. I can’t imagine anything better.

Learn more about Wistar’s Postdoctoral Training Program.