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Just in time

June 17, 2014 8:45 AM

Fran Simon
fsimon@tulane.edu

When she got a phone call last year from the MacArthur Foundation, statistician Susan Murphy thought the call was for a recommendation for one of her students. But instead she learned that she had received a “genius grant,” a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 paid out over five years that allows her to follow her own creative vision. Murphy received a master’s degree in applied statistics from Tulane University in 1983.

Susan Murphy

With a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” alumna Susan Murphy is developing personalized interventions for individuals with chronic disorders such as addiction, mental illness, autism and obesity in young children. (Photo from the MacArthur Foundation)


Murphy is developing evidence for “just in time” personalized interventions in collaboration with clinicians who are treating individuals with chronic disorders such as addiction, mental illness, autism and obesity in young children.

“These are conditions that confound our entire society. How do we help these individuals, when there is no magic bullet?” Murphy ponders. “Every illness is different.”

Murphy has developed a formal model of the treatment decision-making process and an innovative design for clinical trials that allow researchers to test the efficacy of adaptive interventions. Murphy’s Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) is a means for learning how to best dynamically adapt treatment to each individual’s response over time. 

By translating statistical theory into powerful tools for evaluating and tailoring complex medical therapies, Murphy is poised to have a significant impact on the field of personalized medicine.

“How can we help you help yourself? One approach is to use your mobile phone to provide support,” says Murphy, who is the H. E. Robbins Professor of Statistics at the University of Michigan. 

For someone who has a psychological and biological addiction, the clinician could suggest strategies via the mobile phone to help manage a craving, which the individual can access anytime to help stay on target. When a person feels suicidal, a panic button could be pressed that would send an alert to a loved one.

Being a MacArthur Fellow is a strong endorsement of her work, says Murphy, and she hopes that this recognition will help her continue to form high quality collaborations with clinical researchers. 

“It came at a great time for me,” she says, “since the NIH and the NSF have had to restrict funds, and it’s gotten harder to obtain research support.”

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu