Susan Murphy nets MacArthur Fellowship

A University of Michigan statistician who is poised to make a significant impact on the field of personalized medicine, an area of great activity in biomedical research, has been chosen one of 24 “exceptionally creative individuals” by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The foundation named Susan A. Murphy, the H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics and professor of psychiatry, among its 2013 fellows, recognizing all of them for exceptionally creative achievements and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future.

“I did not expect this award nor did I even think it possible to aspire to this prestigious award,” Murphy says . “I’m truly honored.”

Each MacArthur Fellow will receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 (increased from $500,000) paid out over five years. Without stipulations or reporting requirements, the fellowship provides maximum freedom for recipients to follow their own creative vision.

New technology, new treatments

Murphy, who has appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and the Medical School, is developing new methodologies to evaluate courses of treatment for individuals coping with chronic or relapsing disorders such as depression or substance abuse.

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, who also is a research professor at U-M’s Institute for Social Research, 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—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.

Smart use for the smartphone

Funds from the MacArthur Fellowship will enable Murphy to more effectively work on algorithms for personalizing smartphone-based interventions going forward, she says. These algorithms are somewhat similar to those used on websites to personalize movie recommendations and ads.

“We are developing algorithms to help people change their lifestyle for the better and to maintain these lifestyle changes,” she says.

“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,” says Provost Martha Pollack. “We are enormously pleased and proud that she is being recognized with a MacArthur Award.”

“This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity,” says Cecilia Conrad, vice president of the MacArthur Fellows Program. “They are artists, social innovators, scientists, and humanists who are working to improve the human condition and to preserve and sustain our natural and cultural heritage. Their stories should inspire each of us to consider our own potential to contribute our talents for the betterment of humankind.”


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