Interview with a Scientist: BIA Fellow Stephen Murphy

by Melissa Harding

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If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children.  In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.

For our next installment in this series, we sat down with BIA Fellow Stephen Murphy. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. The BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences. Stephen is in his first year as a BIA Fellow, researching tree growth in southwestern Pennsylvania.

We interviewed Stephen about his surprising love of computer work, the thrill of publishing his first paper, and why he loves working outside:

1. Introduce yourself and your work in 5 sentences or less.

My name is Stephen and I’m currently a graduate assistant and PhD student in the ecology and evolution department at Ohio State University. My research focuses primarily on temperate deciduous forests in southwestern Pennsylvania. I’m very interested in helping to understand why trees grow and thrive where they do, and how they interact with each other across space and time. I’m also very involved with undergraduate education, and have been a teaching assistant for courses ranging from introductory biology to sustainable agriculture.

2. Why did you become a scientist?

I grew up loving science. I come from a family of physicians, so science (and particularly biology), has always been of great interest to me. I always knew that I would major in biology in college, but it wasn’t until I took a botany course my junior year that I actually got interested in plant ecology. To be honest, the only reason that I even took the class was because the other elective that I wanted to take filled up and there weren’t any other options! It’s funny how little things like that can have such an impact on the rest of your entire life. I can’t imagine doing anything different now that I’ve been pursuing a career in plant ecology for so long now. The work suits my personality and interests perfectly. I have always enjoyed working outdoors, camping, and the likes and now I get to do that as part of my work. It’s very rewarding work.

3. What part do plants play in your research?

Plants, and trees in particular, are my primary area of interest. I’m fascinated by how trees interact with each other and with their surrounding environment. I’m hoping to make a career out of better understanding exactly how these interactions work in nature.

4. What is the most exciting thing you have ever done at work? 

Submitting my first paper was probably the most exciting thing that I’ve done thus far in my career. It is both exciting and nerve-wracking to put your work out there for review, but knowing that you will leave a permanent contribution to the field feels very rewarding. Other than that, working outside in the woods is always an adventure. I’ve ran into bears and rattlesnakes and bobcats, and have definitely had to work through some tough weather conditions before. You never know what’s gonna happen!

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 5. What skills do you use in your job?

Whenever I meet a student who expresses interest in pursuing a career in the natural sciences, I always ask them two questions: do you like to read, and do you like to write? With few exceptions, these two skills are more important than any other in science. These two skills have probably helped me in my career more than any other. You don’t necessarily have to be a mathematical wizard or a world authority on something to be a good scientist, but you do have to know how to read and write effectively. Reading skills are important for scientists to keep up-to-date with the vast amount of information that’s out there, and for developing new ideas for future projects. Conversely, writing skills are paramount for disseminating your own work to a wide audience, including both scientists and non-scientists alike. Beyond these two skills, I also use statistical methods and programming software for analyzing data, as well as graphical software for producing figures and maps. Public speaking is also an important part of my job, both for teaching and for presenting my work at scientific conferences.

6. What is your favorite part of your job?

Working in the field collecting new data is definitely at the top of the list. It’s always great getting back outside and away from the office for a while. However, I also really enjoy the data analysis component of research, which was a rather unexpected turn because I never had much experience with it prior to graduate school. I think my job is great because once I get bored with one thing it’s usually time to get back to other. I get the best of both worlds!

7. If you weren’t a scientist, what job would you choose?

If I had to truly start everything over and choose a career outside of science, I think computer programming would be an ideal job. I have discovered that I enjoy the computer-oriented aspects of my job a lot more than I expected, and it’s hard to think of any aspect of my job that doesn’t at least indirectly involve a computer in some way. I really was never much of a tech ‘geek’ growing up, but now that I realize how vital computers are to my life and my job, I definitely wish that I had been. I also think being a computer programmer would be fulfilling in similar ways to being a scientist. Both involve problem solving, and at the end of the day you can feel like you created something or learned something new. And, as an added bonus, the job market for computer programmers these days is quite good.

8. Why is science education important? 

Science education is just as important for non-scientists as it is for scientists. A lot of people think that science is a purely academic pursuit, but this is totally not true. I think it’s safe to say that we use science on a daily basis more than any other subject, even if we don’t realize it. From making dietary choices, to driving our cars, to using our phones, to recycling, science is really everywhere in our lives. And I think a really important point is that all of this information is based off of primary research that real scientists have conducted. It’s easy to forget where the data originally comes from for information that we take for granted in our daily lives. Just flip to the back of any science textbook. What you will find is a long list of hundreds of primary articles that were written by scientists, and which are being used as the foundation for the material presented in the textbook. It’s important to recognize the link between the two. We may not need to know exactly how the phones in our pockets work, but we should recognize that decades of scientific research went into their development. We may not need to know the exact strategies that the National Park Service is using to conserve Grizzly Bear populations in Yellowstone, except to recognize that their efforts are certainly based off of years of important ecological research.

Stephen is a great example of someone whose life was changed by a great science class. It was by chance that he ended up in the field of plant ecology, but he was hooked from the beginning. To learn more about the importance of science communication, check out this post.

Follow Stephen’s adventures in research at his blog!

The above photos are used courtesy of Stephen Murphy and Phipps Science Education.

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