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From anesthesiology to actinides: How Michael Murray changed his childhood dream

Michael Murray is a senior chemistry major at ONU. He came into the university as a biochemistry major but discovered that he had a passion for physical and inorganic chemistry. (Northern Review photo/ Emily Richards)

Michael Murray always wanted to be an anesthesiologist.

“Back when I was even in elementary school I wanted to be an anesthesiologist, so my plan basically throughout high school was to be pre-med and I decided to come in [to ONU] as a biochemistry major,” he said.

His decision to pursue biochemistry is not an uncommon one, as 43% of students in some of the top medical schools graduated with an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences, which includes biochemistry. Murray thought that the chemical aspect of the major would set him up perfectly for his career path. 

“I liked anesthesiology because it felt like more of a chemistry approach to medicine,” he said. “You’re not so focused on surgery and anatomy but you’re more focused on how the drugs are interacting with the specific patient and making sure that they’re staying at a healthy place during surgery. It was a different way to approach medicine rather than just your typical family practice or surgeon.”

So Murray took the first steps to achieving his dream by enrolling in the biology and anatomy courses required to fulfill his major and pre-med concentration. He took the required chemistry classes as well, where he started learning more about the organic and analytical branches of the discipline after his first year.

It was around this time that his life would change forever.

“Starting in our sophomore year, we take one of our first capstone classes when all the professors come around and tell you what they’re researching and kind of get you interested in doing things outside of just the classroom,” said Murray.

One of these professors was Associate Professor of Chemistry Bradley Wile, who specifically focuses on catalysis, inorganic, and organometallic chemistry in his research.

Murray was hooked when he heard Wile’s presentation, and he joined his research group during the spring semester that year. He worked on a project using copper complexes with applications in cancer research and liked the hands-on component of the work.

This research interest, combined with the appeal of his upper-level chemistry classes, made Murray decide it was time for a change.

He switched his major from biochemistry to chemistry and completely retired the career path he had spent years planning. He would now aspire to pursue a career in a completely different field: nuclear science.

The now senior will graduate from ONU with his Bachelor’s degree at the end of the semester and immediately begin a graduate school program in nuclear chemistry at the University of Missouri in Columbia as a Ph.D. candidate.

“One of the things that I think is interesting about Michael is that he came to my group with an interest in the biological aspects of the work and, through that interest, saw an aspect that led him to pursue other areas of inorganic chemistry, and in this case nuclear chemistry, as an area of interest,” said Wile.

“I think that’s kind of neat that he’s able to see the connections between the work and go from one interest to the other and allow that change to happen without sort of holding onto the original motivation. That’s a very helpful feature that not everyone has.”

Murray’s interest in nuclear chemistry started during his junior year when he took multiple courses in physical chemistry. He found himself wondering why and how certain aspects of the chemistry worked as he got deeper into the course material, which further solidified his fascination with his newly-chosen major.

"My choice to go into nuclear chemistry was based on the upper level chemistry classes in physical chemistry that I took, like advanced physical chemistry and physical chemistry two,” he said.

“I liked the idea of theory, but I wanted to have a practical application of it. In nuclear chemistry, you can use a lot of the same ideas that you’re getting theory to understand, but you can use it for energy and different sustainabilities. I liked how you can actually take physical chemistry and give it an everyday application.”

Murray considered entering a program specific to physical chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as a program in inorganic chemistry at the University of Mississippi to compliment his current research area, but decided his real interest was in the nuclear field. The problem with entering such a discipline is that there aren’t a lot of schools that offer a nuclear program, especially starting halfway through the school year.

Of the four schools that Murray considered to have reputable nuclear chemistry programs, he chose Missouri because it felt similar to ONU.

“Once I actually went and looked at schools, [Missouri] felt like home, it felt right,” he said. “The departments there were very similar to the departments here, so their interactions and how they were all talking to each other and kind of joking around made it feel welcoming just like here at ONU.”

Murray accredits his experiences within the ONU chemistry program with much of his preparedness to enter a graduate school program early, an entire semester before many of his peers will pursue similar aspirations. He said that he likes how the department attempts to make students apply knowledge rather than just spitting it back out on a quiz or test.

“It’s really helped me to figure out how I want to take information and use it toward my future doctoral research, so how I can take an idea and maybe expand on it or use that idea to show something new and exciting and be able to apply what I know rather than just have this information,” Murray said.

Wile agreed that the ONU chemistry and biochemistry department is focused on preparing its students for future graduate school opportunities.

I think one of the things that we do really well here, and people may not realize until they go somewhere else, is the amount of hands-on technical training, at even the sophomore level, far exceeds what I think the competitor grad students will see,” he said.

Part of this training includes the opportunity to hold a teaching assistant (TA) position in numerous labs, including those for upper-level classes. Murray has been a TA for general, organic, and inorganic chemistry labs during his time at ONU and will be expected to hold a similar position as a graduate student to help subsidize the costs of attending school.

“The idea that TAing a general chemistry class/lab right off the bat is likely something he’ll be comfortable with having done that here already,” said Wile. “I think that will serve him really well and almost get him to the end of the first year after the first semester, so I suspect that he’ll be on the ground running when he starts.”

Murray will have a packed schedule, as he will be taking classes and conducting research in addition to teaching during this time. He will focus exclusively on his thesis research after the first year and a half and then take a candidacy exam in his third year.

He is no stranger to time-management, however.

Murray is a three-sport athlete as a member of the men’s cross country, indoor, and outdoor track teams. His average semester consists of 19 credit hours in addition to working two jobs as a TA and a bartender at The Cask Room.

He hopes that his diligent attitude will help him complete his Ph.D. in four years, rather than the five or more years it takes most graduate students at Missouri. He joked that he doesn’t like to finish anything in the right amount of time.

“Getting my undergraduate degree early really helped because I got used to just taking 20 credit hours at a time, so having that issue with all the time management anyway just makes it nice and easy to be like, ‘well I’m going to go in from 7-5 today and I’ll get it done faster than the person who’s going in 9-4,’” Murray said. “Being ready for more of a time commitment like that outright I think is going to help me get the degree done in 4 [years] instead of 5.”

Wile believes that Michael will be successful within his graduate program due to his professional demeanor and work ethic. He smiled when he recalled a story about Michael’s first year in the research lab.

Murray has learned much more since that day, and according to Wile, is now a researcher with better insight and understanding as to what is happening in the lab and why. He is able to construct logical steps forward by consulting relevant literature, something Wile thinks speaks to his maturity as a researcher.

“He seems to thrive on not being directly told what to do,” said Wile. “He would rather have some autonomy, and I think that’s a skill that a lot of grad students need in order to be very successful, so I think that will serve him really well.”

Wile said that he feels lucky to have people like Murray in his lab and happy to see these individuals continue on with research among many notable ONU chemistry alumni.

Murray will begin his newly minted plan at the start of next year and looks forward to starting life as a contributing member to society through his research. He hopes to eventually go on to work a government job somewhere like Los Alamos or Sandia National Laboratory or hold an industry position in sustainability or energy production.

These goals are far different than the ones he had just two short years ago, but Murray said that he hasn’t looked back since making the decision to switch.

“I’m glad that I changed and I’m glad that I didn’t just stick out with something because I thought it was the better plan,” he said. “I would encourage people to explore other things rather than just stick with what they have. There’s always a different approach you can take.”

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