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Life and Work with Erin Murphy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Erin Murphy.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Erin. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
The most defining moment in my story happened shortly after I finished my Master’s degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I had studied geology and biology and intended to continue straight into a Ph.D. I had a longterm boyfriend who was already living in California and accepted an offer to work with a professor at UC-Riverside studying disease ecology. I was ready to get engaged, set my career path and move forward, no questions asked. A week after I graduated and a month before I moved to Cali for my new life, the professor called me to tell me he had accepted a new position and would be moving to Oregon. This meant I could go with him or go to Riverside without the main advisor. I knew neither would work for me. And for the first time in my well-planned life, my future felt completely unknown.

Unsurprisingly, the following summer was an incredibly stressful period of my life, but what surprised me the most is that I did not feel sad about losing this opportunity. This got me wondering if I don’t feel sad about this loss how much could I have really wanted it in the first place? The more I thought about it, the more I realized I never made an active choice. I did what felt safe, what I thought made sense. This woke me up. I moved in with my parents, broke up with my boyfriend and began looking for jobs all over the country. Every day, I played a game where I envisioned a completely different life for myself and thought about how it fits. It took some time, but having the rug ripped out from under me gave me the freedom to rebuild carefully, and now I have a life that I chose, that I filled with the people and passions that make me happy, and that I cherish daily.

I did my Master’s research in Curacao, studying how sewage pollution impacts coral health. Once I reflected on this experience more deeply, I realized I learned two important things about myself. First, I started studying coral disease because of my interest in disease ecology but after two years studying marine systems, they stole my heart. Therefore, though the original Ph.D. position I accepted was to continue down the path of disease ecology back in terrestrial systems, I decided moving forward I would focus on marine conservation. Second, I realized that a career in academic research would not be fulfilling for me. I was frustrated by the disconnect between science and local policy. We knew dumping raw sewage was harming the reefs and the people who depend on them long before I started my research, and in my academic role, I felt the knowledge I added didn’t foster any meaningful change.

So, I moved to D.C. and after a year working at the Afterschool Alliance, advocating for equity in informal STEM education opportunities and funding, I received a position as an ORISE research fellow for the EPA in the Oceans and Coastal Management Branch. This job was a dream. I worked with amazing, passionate individuals both at EPA and partner organizations. I felt my voice was heard and my work helped push forward policies and management strategies that will meaningfully improve the health of our marine systems.

After three years in DC, I was finally ready to go back to school again with a much clearer purpose. Now, I am starting my second year at Arizona State University in the Biology and Society program. I work on a broad range of marine conservation issues, but my dissertation research is focused on marine plastic pollution in the Philippines. My research is focused on improving policy and decision-making around plastic pollution and I collaborate with non-profits, policymakers, and other academics from around the world to ensure that my research is impactful. I love my work and I can’t wait to see how the rest of my program and my career unfolds.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It has not been a smooth road, but I am grateful for that. The bumps along the way forced me to reevaluate my path and to pursue my passions with purpose. It’s easy to do the first thing that comes your way and not question if it is what you really want. We have preconceived notions of who we are and who we should become that can be hard to let go of. Whether it is your family, your community or your previous self who is pushing you one direction, just remember those opinions are much less important than your own opinion now. Fearlessly pursue a life that will give you fulfillment. It might not be the easiest road, but we only have one chance to live the life we want.

An important part of this is work-life balance. No matter how much you love your job, if you don’t take time to find the other things in life that you are passionate about, you will burn out. Protect your life from your work. Give it the importance it deserves. For me, that is being outside. I spend most of my free time and almost every weekend outdoors rock climbing, running, hiking, backpacking, canoeing. I love it all.

If you don’t know where you want to go or even what opportunities are available, that’s okay. Talk to people. The women I have worked with have played a huge role in helping me find my path. Find a female mentor, and talk to her about your goals and interests.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I am a marine conservation ecologist that focuses on land-based pollutants. I use my training as an ecologist to better understand the ecosystem impacts of marine pollution and recommend more protective policy interventions. My holistic approach to studying these ecosystems includes the human populations who depend on them. Therefore, I integrate issues of equity, cost, and culture into my decision-making to ensure the solutions we implement not only protect vulnerable marine ecosystems but also vulnerable human populations.

While working at the EPA, I was on two different teams. As a member of the coral reef team, I participated in the US coral reef task force, an inter-agency group that works directly with the US states and territories who have coral reefs to help better protect them. Before I joined EPA a massive dredging event in the state of Florida decimated hundreds of acres of reefs. To support the state, I did research to provide recommendations for a new standard for Florida that would protect reefs from future dredging projects, including the scheduled project in Port Everglades. For the vessels, marinas and ports team, I focused primarily on vessel sewage pollution. My group and I evaluated the existing standards for vessel sewage pollution and developed recommendations for new standards that will be more protective of the sensitive marine ecosystems that are commonly visited by recreational, commercial and cruise ships.

As a graduate student, my primary focus is on marine plastic pollution. I am a member of the Plastic Pollution Emissions Working Group (Plasticpeg.org), a team that is developing a global model that will allow users to estimate the efficacy of different intervention strategies for reducing the volume of marine plastic. I am working with members of this team, faculty at Silliman University in the Philippines and local non-profits to create a higher-resolution model specific to the Philippines. I will use this to model interventions being considered in the Philippines, in real-time, to help inform the decision-making process. I am also evaluating the ecological impacts of plastics on local marine ecosystems and the social and economic costs of plastics and interventions. These decision-support tools will be shared with local non-profits and policymakers to support them in their effort to reduce marine plastic pollution.

Are there any apps, books, podcasts or other resources that you’ve benefited from using?
I enjoy reading books that challenge the way I view the world. It’s hard for me to choose only a few favorites, but some authors that have really made an impression on me in the last few years are Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Sartre, and Jane Austen.

I love all of the NPR podcasts; This American Life, Shit Town, and serial, but I will listen to almost anything on a long car ride!

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Image Credit:
Jan Schipper; Spencer Perry

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