As an alumna and faculty member, Professor Cathy Murphy brings a rare perspective to her new role as head of the Department of Chemistry, and her role also marks a historic moment as the first woman to lead the department in its 152-year history.
Murphy (BS, 1986) officially succeeded previous department head Martin Gruebele on June 1, beginning her tenure as both the university and the department enter a major transition phase to resume research and other activities on campus.
“I am determined that we will get through this COVID-19 pandemic, re-calibrate, and emerge stronger for it. It's on me to make that happen,” Murphy said. “We are just about the same age as the periodic table (152 years old) and intend to be a major force in the field of chemistry for at least another 150 years.”
Previous department head Martin Gruebele encouraged Murphy to consider leading the department, and in December, she applied for the position that she will balance with research and other work as the Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry.
In the spring, she officially accepted the appointment from Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and since January, has been attending department-head-related meetings and working with Gruebele toward a gradual transition.
“I am very glad Cathy Murphy is stepping into the position of department head,” Gruebele said. “She was an undergraduate at Illinois, then came back on the faculty, so she knows the department from both a student and professor perspective, which is rare.”
Besides being an outstanding scientist and mentor, Martin said, Murphy has also held other administrative positions on campus, including associate director of the Materials Research Lab.
“And after involving her increasingly in department business over the last few months, I am confident we’ll have a smooth transition to her leadership,” he said. “Cathy will be the first woman heading the Department of Chemistry in its over 150-year history. I think that’s long overdue and having more diverse role models is important for the department moving forward.”
Murphy said for those outside the department, the appointment of a woman to this position conveys the fact that the department has competent, experienced women chemists.
“Plenty of other chemistry departments in the country have had women department heads, so another message conveyed is that it’s about time,” she said. “Within the department, I hope to serve as a good role model, especially for our women students.”
Once the department emerges from the challenges presented by the pandemic, Murphy said she has goals and initiatives she would like to pursue.
“I look forward to focusing on the student experience, so every student who comes through our department emerges the better for it,” she said.
Other goals include managing the addition to the Roger Adams Laboratory, so the department has more high-quality space, as well as adding new faculty who bring exciting research and teaching ideas to the department, recruiting excellent new people, whether staff, faculty or students, and talking with a lot of people about how to make the department even better and stronger.
“I will be leaning heavily on the accumulated wisdom of four former heads - Steve Zimmerman, Jeff Moore, Greg Girolami and Martin Gruebele,” Murphy said. “I deeply thank Martin for all he has done for the department, and plan to bug him a lot for his advice and wisdom.”
Gruebele said he has enjoyed the past three and a half years serving the department, especially the “fun things like awards and interacting with alumni, but also the challenges, large and small.
“I think we’ve made progress with our graduate climate and with people like Dr. Lloyd Munjanja, whom I hired to direct climate and diversity issues,” he said. “We have a great team moving forward. Many things have changed in the last three-plus years, but some important ones have stayed the same: the dedication of our staff, the first-class research done by our students, postdocs and faculty, and the teaching of so many majors and non-majors by our lecturers and other faculty. Another Illinois alum is going to helm the American Chemical Society, just one more example of the exemplary service our departmental citizens provide on campus and at-large.”
Chemistry at Illinois is a group of highly accomplished people, Murphy said.
“I am very proud of that. Look at any list of internal staff awards, internal teaching awards, national chemistry awards, power-lists of people in the chemical industry, and you will find Illini chemists all over the place,” Murphy said, mentioning that she, too, is an alum. “So being here is like being home; I love that.”
Murphy intends to keep her research efforts at full strength while department head.
“I will rely on my research group to make sure I am not the rate-limiting step in getting papers out the door,” she said.
An award-winning researcher and pioneer in the synthesis and use of inorganic nanocrystals as probes of biological systems, Murphy’s research has led to the development of synthetic methods used in commercial production of gold nanorods in environmentally sustainable ways. The Murphy Research Group fabricates colloidal inorganic nanomaterials of controlled shape and size, surface-engineering nanoparticles for chemical sensing, biological imaging, and control of cell behavior with a focus on the plasmonic properties of gold nanoparticles and environmental implications of nanotechnology and sustainability.
Most recently, Murphy became the first woman to receive the American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry in 2020. She has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and she has been senior editor for the Journal of Physical Chemistry and deputy editor of the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.
Murphy's twin sister, Patty Jones, also works on campus, as the associate director for research at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. In 2014, Murphy and Jones shared stories from their journeys to become scientists in a video, "Twin Sister Scientists: Advice for Girls & Women in Science & Engineering."
As Gruebele steps away from this leadership role, he looks forward to focusing on his research.
“I particularly look forward to having more time to spend with my students, and I also look forward to teaching again, an activity I enjoy and that I’ve missed for the last few years,” he said. “I wish Cathy the best of luck, especially with the challenging period that’s up ahead for us, the university, and the rest of the world as we navigate a pandemic and yet strive to move forward and accomplish new things.”