Mandi Murph, an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy, educates future pharmacists and also conducts research that aids in the development of drugs to treat cancers that are resistant to standard-of-care drugs.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my bachelor’s degree at Emory University and my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech. I completed postdoctoral training at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
At UGA, my position is split 50/50 between research and teaching. My research surrounds the investigation of novel therapeutics for breast, ovarian and skin cancers that are resistant to standard-of-care drugs. In addition, I teach several courses in the College of Pharmacy: Pharmacogenomic Therapies (PHRM 5390, a new/required course for Pharm.D. students); Anticancer Therapeutics (PHRM 5190, a Pharm.D. elective); Cancer Biology and Therapy (PHRM 8190, a graduate student elective); and War on Cancer (PMCY 4000, coming soon in Spring 2019 as an elective for undergraduate students).
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite courses are any time I have students who actively engage the content in a way that we can discuss it during class. This could occur during lecture when a student asks a really sharp question that facilitates broader class discussions, student presentations that bring up other relevant topics, etc. Interactive discussions and dialogue about material is what college should be all about. We don’t (can’t?) do enough of this in classes today because it’s impossible to verbally engage more than 100 students on a topic for discussion, but smaller course sizes (less than 20) work really well in this capacity. I love to learn and hear new ideas. The in-class, active engagements with sharp questions facilitate that process for me. If the question isn’t something that I can address immediately, I will investigate this after class and usually discover a whole new area about which I can learn. Oftentimes students are too nervous to speak up in a large classroom setting, which is why the smaller sizes more often spur conversation and unique discussions.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Every grant that I’ve received for my research program is a highlight — National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society and It’s The Journey/Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (CORE) funding. I remember each moment and recall exactly where I was when I got the good news. Usually the program officer will call and tell you, or they email you, sometimes before you see your score. I love those phone calls. I’ll never forget the thrill of knowing that we will be able to do the research when you receive the news that the funding will arrive. It’s exciting.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
One of the challenges associated with treating cancers is that they can become resistant to drug therapies. My work seeks to understand the cellular mechanisms that enable this chemoresistance, with the ultimate goal of making cancer treatment more effective.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Sometimes I’ll get a really sharp question or input from a student about a topic where I have less knowledge. That usually inspires me to delve into reading about the topic and thus, a whole new idea or lecture is born. As an example of this, I had a master’s student take my class, and she had a history of melanoma. Her oncologist indicated that a specific type of genetic abnormality was observed in families with melanoma and pancreatic cancer. This reminded us a lot of the legacy of former President Jimmy Carter’s family. We have no idea whether they have this genotype, but they do have pancreatic cancer and melanoma diagnoses at a rate far higher than average. Thus, we did a case study on the genotype and learned about this type of family lineage. Since I had no idea this existed, I owe the entire thing to the student.
In contrast, sometimes I will go to a conference or lecture and pick up all kinds of ideas about science, disease, case studies, etc. to present during my teaching. Meeting the CEO of Vertex at a cancer workshop and learning how he had to spend approximately $1 billion to come up with the drug Ivacaftor (Kalydeco) for cystic fibrosis patients was something I will never forget. I asked him how he thought families would be able to afford the medication, and his response that he would not withhold the drug based on finances was inspiring. He said, “They will get it.” I wished that more pharmaceutical CEOs would have family finances in mind when they establish pricing for drugs, especially for the pediatric market.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope they learn sufficient information to make them highly competent professionals in the workplace. I want them to know more and be better prepared compared to their peers who graduated from other programs. For the Pharm.D. students, I want them to excel at patient care in the oncology setting. I also want them to bring a high level of working expertise in implementing pharmacogenomics into clinical settings, since this is a new area where the state of Georgia is seriously lacking. Every surrounding state is doing a better job of pharmacogenomics implementation than Georgia, and we have to change this to provide our patients with the highest standard of care.
Describe your ideal student.
In the classroom, I like the “A” students who work hard, but critically examine the material and question it. I don’t mind receiving tough questions or criticism about certain topics or the way medicine is implemented in the U.S. If they get outraged, that is fine. I like students who are passionate about the material, in contrast to those who do not care and just want to get through the course. I love receiving follow-up emails to let me know that the course helped with the practice setting the students are in; usually that’s oncology, but I’m hoping for pharmacogenomics in the future.
In the lab, I like the students who are highly productive, work hard and show up to the lab on a regular basis. I like students who question their results and repeat them multiple times to allow the data to reveal itself without imposing their internal biases. I love students who meet deadlines and troubleshoot on their own as much as they can. I also like it when students reach out to obtain the necessary resources and expertise they need to make their projects a success. Bringing me a paper that ties into the studies or fills in a gap that was confusing us is always a plus.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
… attending a UGA football home game in Sanford Stadium, of course. But not for a black-out game, I prefer to wear Georgia red to games.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… vacation, exercise, play harp and spend time with my family. There is a never-ending, year-round schedule of kid activities like soccer, softball, T-ball, twirling, diving, hockey, ice skating, gymnastics, volleyball, Perfectly Polished and harp lessons that happen. Date nights with my spouse are always fun, whether it’s a movie at University Cinema 16 or a swanky restaurant like The National or 5 & 10; Athens has a lot to offer. In the fall there is so much going on around town, like football games, fall festivals, Washington Farms, apple picking and haunted houses. Fall is an incredible time in Georgia. My spouse loves to take vacations, and so we’ve been to Kona, Hawaii, a lot, Oahu, Kauai, Iceland, Australia, Paris, London, Tahiti, Moorea, China (Shanghai, Xian, Chongqing, and Beijing) and Bora Bora twice. The latter is my all-time favorite place to go. It’s in the middle of the South Pacific and absolutely gorgeous.
Community/civic involvement includes…
… church and charity. We also volunteer with pug rescue organizations and fostered about 26 pugs thus far, maybe more. We currently own four pugs that were all adopted from the PugHearts organization after being abandoned by their previous owners or taken away by government officials. Our grumble — Sierra, Reno, Kona and Tahiti — is a riot. There’s never a dull moment with so many fur-balls around our house. Friends and family have also adopted pugs after interacting with our dogs and deciding that they liked the breed’s characteristics. A graduate student in my lab came over my house to meet them, since it was her dream to meet a grumble of pugs. We invited another faculty member with pugs over to really increase the total number. It was awesome.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
Favorite movie — “Aliens.” Who doesn’t love watching Sigourney Weaver as Ripley beat up on deadly aliens to save little Newt and Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks? It’s a mother’s instinct coming to fruition on screen in the face of danger and incredible odds. She picks up flame throwers, grenades and even gets into a robotic loader to pound on the mother alien. She uses what she has, including technology and her intellect, to her advantage against a horrifyingly deadlier enemy. My spouse hates watching this movie with me because I have most of the script memorized and I’m constantly reciting the lines over the characters. I used to watch this on VHS as a child. I was obsessed with space travel and Ripley. I never interpreted this as a horror film, it’s all action to me.
My second favorite movie is “Terminator 2,” with Linda Hamilton as the heroine. The reasons are similar to what I described for “Aliens.”
I have so many favorite books; I can’t name just one. I usually prefer book series where I will have thousands of pages filled with detail to read. It gives my brain much-needed fuel. I’ve recently finished Bernard Cornwell’s first book in the series, “The Last Kingdom,” and I’m looking forward to Christmas break where I’ll have the time to read another one of these. That period of history fascinates me, which is how I landed on his series.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…
… the night that the Georgia Bulldawgs beat the LSU Tigers, 44 to 41, in September 2013. Sanford Stadium was so loud that you couldn’t even hear your own voice screaming for the Dawgs. The intensity in the place was electric, and the Georgia fans were so excited to pull off the hard-fought win against a strong competitor. Near the end of the fourth quarter, the Bulldawgs bench started jumping up-and-down in unison, and it was so thrilling seeing the team bouncing together on the sidelines waiting for a potential victory.
It was the best live game I’ve ever witnessed. I even missed my cousin’s wedding to attend this game. Maybe we want to leave that last part out of the interview — I can’t imagine she’d be thrilled to hear that honesty; however, who gets married during football season anyway? OK, maybe I did, but that was 14 years ago before I watched college football. The university I went to didn’t have a college football team, so at least I have a plausible excuse. She’s in Texas.
Originally published Dec. 3, 2017.