Sanford School of Medicine School of Medicine

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Karla Murphy, M.D.

Karla Murphy, M.D.

Science Runs in the Family                          


By Kim Lee

An affinity for science is a trait steeped in family tradition for Karla Murphy '82 M.D. Her mother was a nurse; her father, a Ph.D. plant science researcher and biochemist. And now, 28 years after her own medical school graduation, Murphy's daughter Emily Murphy '09 M.D., is carrying on in the same footsteps in her general surgery residency.

Yet, it didn't really occur to Murphy that her long-standing interest in science, developing in earnest from the time she was a high school student in Brookings, S.D., could be parlayed into a medical career until she was knee-deep into her undergraduate curriculum.

Now, as a pathologist at Avera McKennan Hospital and Physicians Laboratory, Ltd., and a clinical assistant professor of pathology at the same medical school she graduated from, Murphy acknowledges her most significant influences. "My parents were certainly role models for me, even if subconsciously," she said.

Other factors, such as the faculty at St. Catherine University (Minn.), also cultivated her scientific sensibility. Murphy said, "In the 1970s a woman with an undergraduate degree in science seemed to have limited options: teach, do research or be a medical technologist. The great thing for me was that I went to a women's college, where we had a lot of encouragement from our faculty to do whatever we wanted," Murphy said. "We learned that there were no limits."

Although unknown to her at the time, attending St. Catherine's may have been the best choice Murphy could have made. There was a high interest among her colleagues in medical school - specifically, USD's - and some told her how lucky she was to be a South Dakota resident. Many of her colleagues pursued medical or doctoral degrees.

During Murphy's first year of medical school, female medical students gathered together several times a year for social events. That was helpful, Murphy says. "We had the opportunity to see different lifestyles of women students, residents and physicians, be they married, single or with families, to hear about their experiences and challenges working in various areas of health care."

For any hurdles it may have presented, being a female med student in the '70s wasn't without its advantages. In her second year of medical school, Murphy did a month's rotation with Barbara Spears, M.D., a family practitioner in Pierre, who was a graduate from USD's medical school when it was a two-year program. "Being female was an advantage in that situation, since Spears chose female students. She may not have given that opportunity to a male student. It was great to see a woman physician, who had a family and a personal life, be a physician that people liked to go see."

Twenty years after graduating from medical school herself, Murphy and her female colleagues based in Sioux Falls would invite female SSOM students to regular informal gatherings - casual coffee-and-dessert  sort of occasions - to share common experiences. "We wanted to provide a network of support. But after doing that for three or four years, we started hearing the students ask, 'Why do we need to do this?' They weren't getting as much out of it as we had as young female physicians starting out. Plus, some of the male students felt a little left out. The interesting thing is, that now, I hear residents and young physicians say things that reflect the same questions we had when we were in those shoes. They want to share experiences in the same way we did. But students said they didn't want to have those gatherings anymore. Times have definitely changed since med school in my generation."

Most satisfying on a daily basis for Murphy are the opportunities she has to collaborate with a variety of health care professionals. She said, "Every day I love going to work doing what I do. I love to work for patients and with the professionals that take care of those patients."

Murphy approximates that about 70 percent of her time is spent looking at sample slides and evaluating data, but that doesn't detract from the personal aspect of her work. "This," she said, removing a slide from her microscope and holding it up, "represents a person. Patients don't know who I am, but I'm a part of their care."

Murphy is quick to credit LCM Pathologists and the medical school's pathology residency program at Sanford Health, for helping shape her career and choice of specialty. "I was fortunate to be surrounded by the pathologists, other residents and technologists and to choose my residency at Sanford. You go into a specialty based on the people you know who practice that specialty. You take into consideration how you fit in with those people, and determine if they have the same lifestyle and career goals you want. I can't say enough about what a great experience it was; it was an unparalleled opportunity for me to learn what I needed to know to practice."