Science Wednesday – Spotlight: Life Sciences

By: Jen Reiseman-Briscoe

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, no sector has gained more significance or public visibility than life sciences. From vaccine development, to increased consumer concern and corporate emphasis on sustainability, MBS concentrations including drug discovery & development, sustainability, global agriculture, and biotechnology & genomics have become particularly relevant. The switch to online learning, too, has expanded access to MBS programs such as personal care science (PCS), and applications have skyrocketed—Rutgers MBS is one of only three programs in the nation to offer a PCS master’s degree.

During today’s Alternative Careers in Life Sciences event, panelists Patrick Nosker, Ph.D., Fulbright Scholar Mark Horn, PMP, and MBS host and executive coach Abbe Rosenthal, PCC, discussed how MBS students are very well-positioned in today’s job market, as the need for individuals possessing advanced scientific knowledge and essential business skills has never been greater.

Beth Ann Murphy, Ph.D., MBS Academic Officer and Life Science Coordinator, agrees. Murphy, who spent 25 years as a research scientist at Merck prior to entering academia, joined the MBS program in December 2019 and has since applied her professional background, dually, to advise students while implementing and streamlining processes such as tracking colloquium credits, employing DocuSign, and updating key courses including Ethics for Science & Technology Management.

This “Women in Science Wednesday,” we spoke with Murphy about her journey as a scientist, how she balanced a full-time job while earning her Ph.D., and what she likes best about her role at MBS.

Q&A with Beth Ann Murphy, Ph.D., MBS Academic Officer and Life Sciences Coordinator

Q. How did you become interested in science? Was it a lifelong interest, or was there a significant event?

I was interested in science from a very young age. My parents were in health professions and medical-related professions, respectively. Additionally, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was in the eighth grade. Part of my therapy was to learn about the disorder. So, that was my high school freshman term paper. I grew up in Piscataway, New Jersey, and the public library had little information about eating disorders at the time—this was the late '70s / early '80s, and there wasn’t much public awareness—so I used Rutgers Library of Science and Medicine on Busch campus to do all of my research and became really familiar with reading scientific journals. So, this sparked my interest in neuroscience, obesity, and other metabolic diseases. It is not a coincidence that almost 40 years later, I earned my Ph.D. studying just that topic. 

Q. Was there a certain person in your life who was instrumental in shaping your interests, or someone highly supportive who made you feel capable and competent about your abilities?This is an image of Dr. Beth. Ann Murphy, Coordinator and Academic Officer of Rutgers Master of Business and Science degree concentration in life sciences.

My grandparents were always hugely supportive; they were always interested in what I was doing scientifically. I remember once, I shared with them that I was working with obese mice. Coincidently, a segment on the Today Show talked about obesity and showed obese mice. My grandparents went around telling all of their friends that their granddaughter’s work was on the Today Show, which of course was not true. Also, my sixth-grade math teacher, Mrs. Wright, and my high school chemistry teacher, Dr. Gadebacku, were very supportive and encouraging.

Q. On what subject was your dissertation? Did you study under someone particularly influential?

So, backing up a bit…I worked full-time at Merck while pursuing my Ph.D., and I was able to pursue my doctorate thanks to a company-sponsored award. However, the award required that I study an area that would also benefit the company. I happened to work in the Metabolic Disorders Unit at the time. So although I was free to design my Ph.D. research as my advisor and I saw fit, the topic needed to be included under the Metabolic Disorders umbrella—which included diseases like obesity and diabetes. I had been working in that field for several years before I started graduate school. 

My Ph.D. research focused on how the nervous system controls body weight and food intake. I studied under Dr. Vanessa Routh, a faculty member at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Specifically, I studied a group of neurons located in the part of the brain that controls metabolism (how much we eat and we burn off energy). The neurons that I researched increased their activity and released factors that stimulate food intake, and when glucose levels (aka sugar) fell, showed what would happen when you had not eaten.  The main part of my research showed that if you exposed neurons to very low glucose levels for a long time (similar to levels that would result from prolonged periods of fasting), they became more responsive and released more food-intake stimulating factors. It made sense. Think about a time when you went an entire day without eating. You are ravenous and cannot get the food into your mouth fast enough. That is, at least, in part due to the fact that these neurons are releasing more factors that stimulate food intake.  

Q. What is/was the favorite part of your research area?

That the public is interested in it. If you say, “I study body weight and am working on a pill to help people lose weight,” it’s a real conversation starter! Unfortunately, the company changed priorities and the obesity research area was no longer of interest. So, my research in that area ended.

Q. Of what achievement / accomplishment are you particularly proud?

I am most proud of being able to earn a Ph.D. as a non-traditional, older student who was working full-time. I started pursuing my doctorate mid-career, when I was 40. So, I worked at Merck from 9 to 5 and then went to school at night. I was the oldest person in my class. I had my critics and naysayers—those who thought that it was impossible to work full-time and excel in a competitive graduate program. Also, there were people who held the opinion that an industry scientist was not a “real” scientist.

I spent the entire last year of my Ph.D. program working by day and writing my research papers and thesis by night. Every night, and every weekend—even on holidays, including Christmas—I wrote. At the end of it all,  I graduated with a 3.96 GPA and my Ph.D. advisor told me that she appreciated my maturity and direction—and that I was one of the best students she had ever had. So—without doubt—successfully defending my thesis is definitely one of the hardest things that I have done, but is also the achievement of which I am most proud.

Q. How did your academic/scientific path lead you to your current role at Rutgers?

Working at Rutgers was not in my life plan. Circumstances were such that my 25+ year career in the pharmaceutical industry came to an end. A position opened at MBS and a colleague recommended me for the role. It seemed ideal that I  could marry my professional background in the pharmaceutical industry with academia and teaching—that I would get to help and advise students, especially in the life sciences. Because not only did I have the scientific and professional background, but I also know the challenges of balancing full-time work while pursuing an advanced degree.

Q. What is the most gratifying aspect of your roles and interactions with students?

Getting an email from a student thanking me for helping them make a decision about a class or career path or another important aspect about their professional life. Since most of our students are also working full-time like I was, I feel that I can give them legitimate, experience-based, and realistic advice about balancing work, life, and school. Also, while I was a manager at Merck, I often gave advice to scientists who wanted to pivot out of the lab and into another aspect of the pharmaceutical industry. Many MBS students seek advice about that same topic. In fact, it is the reason why they are pursuing an MBS degree in the first place. I think that my background enables me to give them honest advice and feedback that is based on real-life industry experience and current industry trends. I think they appreciate that.