“When it boils down to it, knowing that you have something to do for at least a year is really nice,” said Nicholas Murphy PO ’13 on his winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship last week.
Murphy is the third Pomona College student to win the scholarship since its establishment by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001, one of 39 awardees from a field of 750 applicants this year. He will be pursuing a Master of Philosophy in Biological Science with a focus in pathology at the University of Cambridge. There, he will be working in the laboratory of professor Mark Field, who conducts research on trypanosome. Trypanosome causes African Sleeping Sickness, a disease endemic to sub-Saharan regions.
Murphy is a molecular biology major from Berkeley, Calif. His activities on campus include working as a community engagement coordinator at Pomona’s Draper Center for Community Partnerships; running the college’s Food Recovery Network, which delivers unserved food from the dining halls to a homeless shelter; and going on hiking and rock-climbing trips with 5C outdoors club On The Loose. Perhaps aptly, given his interest in biology and chemistry, Murphy also likes to cook.
Murphy said he came to Pomona on the pre-med track, thinking he would major in biology. Then he took organic chemistry with professors Dan O’Leary and John Unger during his sophomore year and became interested in the junction between biology and chemistry, “where life arises out of particles bumping into each other.”
“[Molecular biology] was perfect, because it drew great professors from both the biology and chemistry departments,” Murphy said. “It gave me a really great experience with the life sciences, particularly with research.”
Murphy went to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology with Pomona’s Pauley Summer Program after his sophomore year, and he participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program after his junior year. His research experience includes projects ranging from analyzing how climate change will affect corals to, most recently, characterizing the evolution of genetic selfish elements.
Post-graduation, Murphy wanted to go to medical school after taking one or two gap years but had not settled on any specific plan.
“I have very varied interests, so there were a lot of different things that I was looking toward potentially doing. Before I got this scholarship to Cambridge, I had applied to teach in various cities, but I really want to do research, and I’m happy I now have the opportunity to do it,” Murphy said.
He credits Pomona’s strong awareness efforts and support services for students applying for fellowships and scholarships as part of what got him thinking about the Gates Cambridge program.
“Pomona was very on top of it. There was a big push for us to apply for these fellowships. Over the summer they encouraged us to do a lot of the prep work,” he said.
Murphy will be joining a group of three researchers at Cambridge who are examining protein interaction interfaces to develop new treatments for African Sleeping Sickness, which has had no breakthroughs since the 1970s.
“Professor Field’s research was both something I’d been interested in and something I knew I had the skills to help with. This year at Cambridge may or may not be what I’m doing for the rest of my life. It could be,” Murphy said. “One thing that I’m relatively sure of is that I want to continue to pursue these types of diseases—the neglected tropical diseases, like African Sleeping Sickness and Chagas disease, which is caused by a related parasite, or maybe even something much bigger like malaria.”
For Murphy, studying diseases that do not get as much international attention because they do not affect wealthy nations is a way to merge his passion for social justice and community development with his interest in molecular biology.
“Working with diseases that affect disenfranchised groups, while it is in part about curing individuals, is also about creating healthier, more stable communities. African Sleeping Sickness doesn’t kill that many people, but it does disable them pretty badly,” Murphy said. “It’s something that we’ve been able to ignore, but finding a cure could very well bring us closer to empowering these communities.”
Murphy intends to go ahead with his original plan and attend medical school after his year at Cambridge is over.
“I haven’t yet figured out whether I’m doing an M.D. or an M.D.-Ph.D. The advantage to an M.D.-Ph.D. is that it’s free, and the disadvantage is that it’ll take a long time to complete. I haven’t had any clinical experience, so I need to figure out how much I want to balance that against laboratory research. It seems important to get the grounding of an M.D., I think,” Murphy said. “Professor Field was encouraging me to do an M.D.-Ph.D. because it creates a really good link and solidifies the translation between clinical research and lab research. I’m not really sure what career I’m going to pursue yet. I’m just going to let things happen.”