Susan Murphy, an East Ascension High School alumna, is officially a genius.
Murphy, 55, a University of Michigan statistician who holds a diploma from East Ascension and degree from LSU, was named Wednesday as one of two dozen MacArthur Fellowship recipients, a prestigious honor commonly known as the “genius grant.”
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation annually hands out the grants to exceptionally creative individuals across a range of disciplines. This year’s crop includes scientists, musicians and writers, a doctor, a lawyer and a couple of historians.
Murphy said she believes she earned her nomination — individuals can’t apply — based on some dizzyingly complex work that led to the Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial.
Aptly abbreviated “SMART,” the work boils down to data analysis that personalizes the treatment of chronic diseases, an idea she hopes will vastly improve the lives of people suffering from conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to depression and substance abuse.
Murphy, a self-described math lover who hasn’t lived permanently in Louisiana for more than 25 years, spends most of her time finding ways to improve people’s lives through statistics.
When she’s not working or traveling, there’s a chance she’s fantasizing about Louisiana cuisine, such as beignets from Coffee Call.
“I go there every day when I’m home … well just about every day; it depends on how much fried food we eat,” Murphy said of the eatery, mentioning La Madeleine, a country French café, as another favorite.
She often makes day trips to Baton Rouge during her trips “home,” which Murphy refers to as Gonzales.
The researcher visits at least a few times a year to see her parents, Allan and Irene Allbritton, and indulge in Louisiana favorites, which she doesn’t eat too much of the rest of the year.
“I miss the fried shrimp. I miss the po-boys. I miss the fried crawfish,” Murphy said.
Although born in Bryan, Texas, while her dad was finishing up veterinary school at Texas A&M, Murphy soon crossed the Sabine River when her family relocated to Marksville.
“I’m really from Louisiana,” said Murphy, who grew up in Marksville, moved to Missouri during her “junior high years,” then landed in Gonzales for high school.
While a student at East Ascension, Murphy encountered the first of two major influences on her young life.
“I had this great math teacher, Mrs. Bacala,” Murphy said. “She was phenomenal. I named all my cats after her after that.”
The second influence, also local, came from the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge, Murphy said.
Upon her graduation from LSU in 1980, Murphy received a scholarship from the club that allowed her to study abroad in Germany for a year.
Upon her return in the early 1980s, Murphy settled in New Orleans for a few years while she waited for her husband, Terrance, to finish medical school.
There, she earned a master’s degree from Tulane University, then taught at Loyola University, she said.
Decades later, as the H.E. Robbins Professor of Statistics in cool, dry Michigan, Murphy said she still misses hot, humid Louisiana — especially the people.
“Everybody’s friendly in Louisiana,” Murphy said.