By Carlyn Scott, Science Communications Assistant
Dr. Christin Murphy received her PhD from the College of Marine Science in 2013. She worked in the lab of retired professor Dr. David Mann. A self-proclaimed long-haired hippy, Murphy was surprised to be recruited as a civilian scientist for the US Navy after they found promising applications of her PhD dissertation, “Structure and Function of Pinniped Vibrissae.” Dr. Murphy now runs the Navy’s Bio-Inspired Research and Development Lab where her group studies applications of biological mechanisms in technology, such as maximizing efficiency in wind turbine formations based on the energy diffusing properties of seal whiskers.
An adept speaker, Dr. Murphy excels in communicating her cross-disciplinary studies through dance, humor, and emphatic excitement for her work and the applications they hold.
Dr. Christin Murphy is a wealth of career advice, scientific knowledge, and a pioneer in bio-technology.
Her top career tip to CMS students: hone your communication skills and don’t limit your skill set (or self) to one field. And, if you find yourself shaving a lobster, maybe take a step back.
What led you to CMS?
I earned my bachelor’s degree at New College of Florida studying biology and animal behavior. I also worked at Mote Marine Laboratory during that time with my undergraduate advisor, Dr. Gordon Bauer, training manatees. I did a Fulbright program in Spain at a fish neuroscience lab and then became a teacher on a sailing school vessel for two years. Living and teaching on a traditionally rigged tall ship with Ocean Classroom Foundation, we would take high school students all the way up and down the East Coast of the United States into the Caribbean Island arc and teach them on two and four-month-long voyages. I love teaching, but I knew I wanted to do research.
After my job ended on the ship, I jumped back into working at Mote Marine Lab with my former undergraduate advisor, who introduced me to Dr. David Mann at USF (now retired). Dr. Mann needed a research tech in his lab, and I was offered the position. Being a tech meant that you were involved in all the diverse projects, so I was learning a lot.
I worked in his lab for 1 year, while also applying to graduate programs.
I was just following my regular plan of applying and getting into grad schools and interviewing at other schools when I realized I was so happy at CMS. It hit me that I could be leaving what felt like the perfect scenario. I loved the school, I loved the St. Pete area, I loved working with Dr. Mann more than anything, and I loved the amount of choice that I would have when I worked on the lab, and I just couldn't leave.
So, I had a lot of options. I could have gone to a lot of different places, but I realized I was already at the perfect place. And that was the USF CMS.
What is your current research focus and what steered you to this point in your career?
I was interested in studying sensory biology with Dr. Mann – and specifically interested in understanding how lobsters hear and produce sound. I conducted neural recordings of lobsters through a very long and tedious experiment, which was not working at all. I was delivering sound stimuli to them and recording, via electrodes, what their brains were receiving. The issue was the acoustic stimulus induced a stronger neural signal from the hair-like external organs on lobster, which cover most of their body. The vibration of these hairs overpowered the auditory signal so I couldn’t record the activity in their brain that I was targeting.
I found myself sewing little clothes and shaving the lobster in the lab at 2 am, trying to knock out these signals produced by the hairs that was so strong! Finally, I just said, ‘what am I doing?!’ These hairs are clearly more important, ecologically. That’s when I realized: If you can't beat them, join them -- and I switched my project completely. I pivoted to studying their hydrodynamic sensors instead.
We continued with that for a little while when David (Dr. Mann) and I were brainstorming over grant applications for an NSF fellowship. He said think big: ‘if you could do this on any organism, what would you do’?! And my mind made the jump from arthropods to the next best big hydrodynamic tracker, which would be seals. We proposed to study the structure and function of pinniped whiskers.
Side note: We don’t have any seals in Florida! But once you have that funding of your own it gives you a lot of flexibility.
I was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and that gave us some leverage to talk to our colleagues in UC Santa Cruz, at the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab. They do have resident seals for research! I spent time in residency there, still as USF student, but this funding freedom enabled me to be an in-residence researcher for a couple years at Santa Cruz.
That’s when I started overlapping with engineers a lot more. We were working on the sensory biology aspect with the Santa Cruz lab, and University of Virginia who were running the engineering perspective. I was able to fly out to Virginia and test whiskers in their water tunnel, so I started to learn these engineering techniques and pick up a new language and skills.
This project made me realize without all these cross-disciplinary teams and concepts we couldn’t have conducted this study. I realized that the rest of my career I needed to be working with a multidisciplinary team; that’s how you achieve great things.
Did you ever think you would work for the Navy?
At the end of your dissertation, you always write with these high hopes that your work applies to industry or defense work, and you never really expect anyone to read it. But somebody did and then even more shocking - said OK, do it! They wanted me to take it to the next step and help build the technology, which opened me up to a whole new world of bio-inspired technology. I was offered a postdoc at the Navy, where I continue to work today.
I was lucky in that I was led to the bioinspired technology field which was developing rapidly at the same time as I was getting my degree. Whenever there's a new field it gives the opportunity to direct it as well, so we had ideas for where we thought the field should develop and this presented the opportunity to bring some of those ideas to life.
Do you see yourself continuing at the Navy?
I do, I like that it is always different. It's been changing constantly, and I thrive on that novelty and coming up with new creative concepts. I also got to the point in my career where I just had too much to be able to do it by myself. So that's when I moved into a leadership and management role. I'm still a researcher, but now I have a team to accomplish more things and see a bigger picture. It’s super exciting to hire more people, grow the group, and just see what we bring in together.
What excites you about your current job? What are you looking forward to in your future career?
Bioinspired technology is kind of a new field, so we think about what direction we should be going and where to put our energy when things don't work. We ask a lot of questions, like ‘Why don't they work?’ ‘Are we not looking at things the right way?’
Because of my position at the Navy, I've been a part of great thinktanks with researchers from around the world where your voice really does matter. You can really change the direction of the field. That's kind of what my TED Talk hit on a little bit. As biologists we look at organized information differently than engineers. I just think that that willingness and open conversation in the whole research field is so exciting.
How did your work and education at CMS prepare you for your career?
I don't think that any of my professors would have guessed this direction for me or make that connection, but they taught me how to network into these positions.
My advisor would take us to conferences even before we had something to present, and directly say, ‘I'm not paying you to talk to your friends here. I need you to meet new people’. He made sure we learned how to integrate ourselves into the research community.
You would see the group of new, scared grad students clustered around the snack table talking to each other at these conferences where there are world experts from this field who all love their work and love talking about it. Dr. Mann would bring us into conversations with these experts, like the person who wrote your textbook for example, which was very intimidating at first. But by the end of the conversation, you realize these experts are people, just like you. It was also nice to know that if you messed up no one would remember you at that point in your career!
It was such an important lesson to put yourself out there and meet people, ask questions. People at conferences love talking about their work – that’s the reason they go!
I also had a set of engineering skills that applied to my current job because Dr. Mann’s lab was much more electronics-focused. We had to build our own underwater devices because they were not that common at the time, so we were buying spy cams and things like that and engineering them to fit our needs. We knew that we are a niche market and were not going to drive this technology ourselves, so the idea is to look at what other fields are doing and try to co-opt that technology. I've incorporated this approach quite a bit into my work now.
Working with Dr. Mya Breitbart was incredibly influential as well. I learned a tremendous amount from her about scientific communication and about leadership and management in general. She works in different subject matter than I do, but the fundamentals of running a lab and mentoring students are the same and have helped shape the way I run my own lab now.
Lastly, the at sea experience that you get while being a CMS student is incredibly valuable. That's not something a lot of people in the engineering world have, so when I got here, I was able to run operations on the sea tests. I'm trained to use nets and standard oceanographic sampling equipment, and even though now the equipment that I put in the water is completely different, I use a lot of the operations and safety procedures that I was trained on at CMS. The experimental matrix for engineering was all very much the same. The foundation for how you run these experiments, how you run a team, how you operate equipment safely, and how you build equipment to be ready for at sea experiments was all there; just the content shifted.
Have there been any surprises along the way in your career path? What were the biggest eye-openers?
I initially panicked when I got my permanent job offer here at the Navy because these government jobs are lifetime. It was terrifying because at that point, I expected to have multiple posts and multiple jobs, an idea that is so ingrained in academia. The idea of stability and lifetime career was momentarily scary, but I was immediately grateful after the shock wore off.
Another interesting thing was realizing how much I like management because it’s not an exciting word. But I think of it as a love for people. I like seeing how they think and how they work. I like seeing the big picture while trusting the ideas and inspirations from team members. That is management. It's finding strengths. It's helping people reach their potential, and it's doing more as a group than you ever could do as an individual. I never thought of it like that, and I love it!
What has been a career highlight to date?
The TED Talk was a real highlight. It was exciting to be able to put these ideas out in a way that the public could appreciate, and the feedback that I got from the talk was great! Pulling in people that I couldn’t have reached otherwise was really exciting. Having people say that it made a topic that they weren't interested in fascinating was a major highlight.
My other big highlight was building and heading up the Bio-Inspired Research and Development lab here in Newport, RI. In our lab we are trying to get a better understanding of biological systems so that we can leverage this knowledge for technology advancements. We look at a broad range of topics such as how the structure of fish noses help protect their delicate and sensitive sensory systems; how schools of fish can help us understand how information propagates as a wave through a group; how the unique bumpy surface of seal whiskers can help us reduce unwanted vibrations on equipment moving through the water, and much more. There is still so much to learn from the biological world, how organisms have evolved solutions to physical problems and how we can use those demonstrations as input to our own technology development.
Note: A great video demonstrating her lab’s work below.
What advice would you give a current grad student?
Communication is a skill that takes as much training as all your other technical courses. It's incredibly important. If you can't convey what you work on, or why its application is important, then you are just working in a bubble. You must be able to do rigorous, rigorous, rigorous technical work and explain that at a technical level, but you have to take every bit of that and make it digestible at different levels. It’s important to change your communication strategy based on who you're talking to. Are you talking high school students? Are you talking to funders from a totally different industry than you are? Remember, the terminology splits us into these fields where we feel like we can't understand each other. But you miss out on so much if you can't bridge the communication gap.
A great example of shifting communication is when I presented a poster on my research for a Science and Technology showcase at the Pentagon. It was 6 hours straight of 5-minute presentations to a rotating audience. NASA science director here, Office of Naval Research program officer there, other researchers, maybe a grad student and then someone would tell me the Secretary of the Navy and his entourage was coming and the atmosphere would completely shift! For each person you need to change the way you present information. Same information, two totally different ways of communicating the data.
Another piece of advice is look at where your skills apply, not just where your technical topic applies. In graduate school you're getting so detailed in an area that is often connected to funding changes. Your life may change, circumstances may change, and you may end up wanting different things down the road. If you only want to study for example, the walking mechanism of a particular crab for the rest of your life, there's probably one or two places you can go. But if you understand how that could apply to robotics or orthopedics or another field, as your life changes and develops into what you want, it will really open your options and you can do a whole lot more.
Look at the way that the skills and the tools that you have apply, pitch your skill set in your job applications. Adjust your resume accordingly so that you are highlighting the information that is important to that job, change your responses to questions so that the information is framed in a context they will understand, and highlight what you can bring to that particular field.
What advice would you give to a student interested in working in your field of naval research?
I would say major areas of interest in naval research currently are in oceanography, acoustics, and ocean robots. There are applications for all aspects of oceanography, but the most desired areas are chemical and physical oceanography. You should think about how we monitor the ocean and what our limitations are; look at other fields that see the world differently to bridge the knowledge gap.
It’s critical to express your data collection techniques in a way that is very general. For example, you might use satellites or remote sensing to monitor sea surface temperature or ocean currents – the Navy is also interested in monitoring the same ocean but in a different context. Even if you don't really understand how your data collections skills apply to another field, you can at least speak about how they are used to monitor the environment.
What is your favorite memory from your time at the college?
Those Friday nights socials between the students and the professors, TGIF, where we there would be drinks and food available and the whole community would come together. Professors would always take time to join the happy hour with all the students and it was just so nice to break from your normal interactions and get to know each other better. We go to just hang out and act like real people and I think that's one reason I've kept in touch with some of them over the years is that time together.
This one time, Dr. Mya Breitbart and her group decided to have a Lab Olympics. They set up all these fun plays on lab tactics, so we had to spin around the bat and pipette water into vials or put shaving cream on the lab gloves. It was hysterical.
Another highlight of my time at CMS - and highlight of my life - was going to Antarctica. I’ve never seen any place like that on this planet. Hands down the best research experience of my life. I joined Dr. Jose Torres (now retired) on his expedition there. We were on an icebreaker for two months studying Antarctic silverfish and how their distribution and abundance was changing with climate change, along with how the diet and range of the penguins that feed on these fish was shifting in response. It was just amazing to see everything that you had learned about come out to play. Dr. Torres had tracked that area so many years before, so we had historical data, and we were able to see how the environment was changing. We could see fields of ice bergs from ice sheets that had just broken up, for example. And we were in uncharted waters because ice had covered that area for the entirety of human exploration. All that ice was gone, so it made climate change undeniable and very real to see. Seeing firsthand the shifts in that environment while also seeing the absolute splendor of Antarctica was life changing.