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From Food Service Manager to Medical Researcher

Molly Murphy’s Work Explores How Neurons in the Brain Make Connections

If it had not been for exploring EMT school, medical science undergraduate Molly Murphy may still be helping to manage restaurants instead of preparing for a career in medicine.

Her sights would be set on line cooks and ordering produce instead of focused on becoming a trauma surgeon.

The College of Science student and former culinary professional is part of a research team in the biology lab of Peter G. Fuerst where she explores how proteins made by two genes play a role in developing Down syndrome and autism.

“This research is cool because it has huge human health implications for Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder,” Murphy said.

Since last summer when she joined Fuerst’s lab, she has been immersed in the research along with a full plate of medical science courses,

Despite a grueling schedule, Murphy says she is exactly where she hoped to be when several years ago, she decided to enroll in EMT school while still working in the restaurant industry. She completed the course and earned her National Registry Emergency Medical Technician certification which sparked an interest in emergency medicine and prompted her to pursue a career in health care.

Murphy promptly enrolled at North Idaho College to prepare for its nursing program, but her curiosity propelled her further.

“It was rigorous, but I didn’t want to limit myself,” Murphy said. “I wanted to learn a higher caliber of knowledge.”

While studying to become a nurse, Murphy said she was more curious about the mechanisms of disease than therapeutics, and knew she wanted to take on more responsibility. 

“In all my science courses I was always trying to learn beyond what was being taught in the classroom,” she said.

Advanced coursework in anatomy and physiology led to an opportunity for undergraduate research and an IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) fellowship.

Idaho INBRE is a network of researchers in Idaho’s public higher education institutions, who promote biomedical research and education while providing research opportunities for students. The group provides mentorship and helps students navigate their academic schedules.

Murphy joined Fuerst’s molecular, cellular and developmental biology lab in the Department of Biological Sciences where she experiments with mice retinas to explore how proteins made by two genes play a role in developing Down Syndrome and autism.

Smiling female college student with long hair and glasses stands in hallway with a backpack.
While earning an EMT certification, former restaurant manager major Molly Murphy decided to switch career goals and enrolled in U of I’s Medical Science program.
“I wanted to learn a higher caliber of knowledge.”Molly Murphy, Medical Science Student

“Scientists use cells from the retina to study genetic mutation, because the results of manipulation are easier to see in highly organized nervous tissue of the eye,” she said.

Located in the back of the eye, retina tissue absorbs light and sends the information to the optic nerve, which in turn connects to the brain, making the retina an extension of the central nervous system.

“To do this research the team makes use of mouse models that have mutations or gene modifications similar to what humans with these conditions have,” Fuerst said. “This way we can carefully study how the brain develops.”

Murphy’s research helped the team understand how neurons in the brain make connections, and how this process occurs differently in a mouse model of Down syndrome, he said.

Her research led to a Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which provides a scholarship in addition to a three-semester research fellowship.

“Molly has become a really instrumental person in our research group and will continue her research over the summer,” Fuerst said.

The complete immersion in an area of study that Murphy knows is her destiny has given her a deeper knowledge of scientific processes, an appreciation for patience, and a long-range goal to pursue one step at a time.

“Right now, I’m navigating what I need to do to complete my degree, and the steps I need to take to apply to medical school,” she said.

Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University of Idaho Communications and Marketing.

Photos by Joe Pallen, University of Idaho Creative Services.
Published in March 2022.

Female scientist smiles from behind beakers and chemistry glassware while seated in a chemistry lab.
While earning an EMT certification, former kitchen manager Molly Murphy decided to switch career goals and enrolled in U of I’s medical science program.


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