Murphy wins 2013 MacArthur ‘genius grant’

Susan Murphy, Ph.D., a University of Michigan statistician who is poised to make a significant impact on the field of personalized medicine through work focused on improving treatment decisions for chronic illnesses such as depression and substance abuse, has been named a 2013 MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The MacArthur Fellows Program celebrates and inspires the creative potential of individuals through no-strings attached fellowships. Murphy is one of 24 “exceptionally creative individuals” – including artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists – named to the 2013 class.

Murphy is the H. E. Robbins Professor of Statistics, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry, a member of the U-M Depression Center, and a research professor in the Institute for Social Research. Her work involves translating statistical theory into powerful tools for evaluating and tailoring complex medical therapies, which has great potential for ensuring that individuals receive the treatments best matched to their particular illness and life circumstances.


“Professor Murphy’s path-breaking work in developing dynamic treatment regimes to address mental health concerns exemplifies the university’s commitment to research on important problems facing society,” said Provost Martha Pollack. “We are enormously pleased and proud that she is being recognized with a MacArthur Award.”

In contrast to the treatment of acute illness, where clinicians make a single decision about treatment, doctors treating chronic ailments make a sequence of decisions over time about the best therapeutic approach based on the current state of a patient, the stage of the disease, and the individual’s response to prior treatments.

Murphy has developed a formal model of this decision-making process and an innovative design for clinical trials that allow researchers to test the efficacy of adaptive interventions. While the standard clinical trial paradigm simply tests and compares “one shot” treatments in a defined population, Murphy’s Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) is a means for learning how best to dynamically adapt treatment to each individual’s response over time. Using SMART, clinicians assess and modify patients’ treatments during the trial, an approach with potential applications in the treatment of a range of chronic diseases—such as ADHD, alcoholism, drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular disease—that involve therapies that are regularly reconsidered and replaced as the disease progresses.

As Murphy continues to refine adaptive interventions, she is working to increase opportunities for implementation in clinical settings through collaborations with medical researchers, clinicians, and computer scientists focused on sequential decision making.

Murphy said the funds enable her to more effectively work on algorithms for personalizing smartphone-based interventions forward. These algorithms, she said, are somewhat similar to those used on websites to personalized movie recommendations and ads.

“We are developing algorithms to help people change their lifestyle for the better and to maintain these lifestyle changes,” she said. “I will use the funds to help support the work required to make these algorithms effective and usable for use with mobile devices like smartphones.”

Murphy received a B.S. (1980) from Louisiana State University and a Ph.D. (1989) from the University of North Carolina. She was affiliated with Pennsylvania State University (1989–1997) prior to her appointment to the U-M faculty. She is also a principal investigator at the Methodology Center of Pennsylvania State University.

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted $625,000 fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Read more about the 24 individuals who make up the 2013 class of MacArthur Fellows.

Members of this year’s class join 873 other MacArthur Fellows who have been recognized since the Program began in 1981. The Fellows were selected through a rigorous process involving thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators, and selectors. The Foundation does not accept unsolicited or outside nominations.