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Bethany Murphy Surges Forward with Purpose

Be Orange

Grounded in her commitment to sustainable water management, the young researcher is embracing every chance to learn and lead.

Portrait of Bethany Murphy in a classroom

By nature, water exists easily in three distinct forms. As a liquid, solid or gas, it maintains equilibrium. Bethany Murphy ’20 recalls being fascinated with this fact during high school chemistry. Growing up near the coast of Massachusetts, she was enchanted by other, more emotional aspects of water, too—changes in the surf after a storm, her grandmother’s culinary delicacies made from the riches of the sea.

Through challenges, responsibilities and experiences she didn’t foresee, Murphy found opportunities in many different forms at Syracuse University, as she was propelled to accomplish more than she ever dreamed she would achieve in college.

Murphy graduates this year with a B.S. in environmental engineering from the College of Engineering and Computer Science and a minor in geography from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet and an accomplished scholar recognized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Udall Foundation and the Astronaut Scholar Foundation. And next fall, she’ll begin graduate work in the U.K. as a Marshall Scholar.

With an interest in water remediation piqued by a high school field trip to a wastewater treatment plant, Murphy came to Syracuse in part for the chance to study Onondaga Lake. Considered sacred within the indigenous territory of the Onondaga Nation, the lake lies to the northwest of Syracuse. Due to industrialization and urbanization, it was once the most polluted lake in the United States. Murphy knew faculty across the University were conducting research on the history and efficacy of cleanup efforts. “Syracuse had the engineering curriculum, the research opportunities, and a social science perspective,” Murphy says. And there was a whole lot more for her, too.

A New Point of View

By sophomore year, Murphy was doing 4 a.m. runs around Onondaga Lake with ROTC. “It’s not something I planned to do, but ROTC became the best decision of my academic career,” she says. After meeting a cadet in a first-semester class, she was intrigued enough to inquire about the program. Once she learned more and considered the environmental implications of the Army’s work in water resources management, her interest became a pursuit.

A year-round athlete through high school, Murphy was undaunted by the physical challenges of ROTC (such as walking long distances with a weighted backpack). And as an avid runner, she quickly took up the role of Stalwart Battalion’s 10-miler captain. But other things—such as tactics and field operations—didn’t come naturally. “I struggled with some parts, but I loved the challenge of figuring it out,” she says. Though not part of her original plan, Murphy says, ROTC helped her develop mental strength, leadership and communication skills.

Following New Pathways

Staying alert to opportunities became a valuable tactic for Murphy. “I really didn’t have an idea of all that was possible,” she says. When her environmental chemistry professor mentioned student research at NOAA, Murphy went to Syracuse University’s Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising for details. Once again, her interest turned to pursuit. The scholarship application took many hours to prepare. “It was an intense process, but I enjoyed writing about my love of water,” Murphy says. Her effort won her NOAA’s Ernest F. Hollings Undergraduate Scholarship and an internship with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In due course, Murphy was awarded the prestigious Udall Scholarship for fields related to the environment, Native Americans and Alaska Natives; Syracuse University’s Remembrance Scholarship; grants from The Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement; the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Award; and the nationally competitive Marshall Scholarship. In fact, she is only the third Marshall Scholar in Syracuse University’s history and one of just 46 recipients selected nationwide last year.

Achieving any of these is a high honor, but for Murphy there was more to it than the winning. “These scholarships gave me the chance to connect and grow with people in the environmental field, STEM or entirely different areas—all of whom are committed to making an impact,” she says. And the application process helped clarify her vision for the future. For one award, she drafted a proposal for increased sustainability in Army water management policy. She didn’t receive that award, but the proposal has shaped her career goals to this day.

‘I Wouldn’t Have Pictured It'

From surfing in Australia as a Syracuse Abroad student to attending a black-tie gala with astronauts, Murphy found herself in situations beyond her expectations and—as she puts it—even her wildest dreams.

During her internship in Utah, she literally had a seat at the table with NASA. Her work involved analyzing snow water data from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission there, and at one point she questioned something the government agency was doing. “We discussed it during a conference call with their representatives,” she recalls. It was potentially an intimidating situation for a college student, but Murphy’s colleagues were respectful and interested in her suggestions. “They are impressive scientists, but they are people too, trying to change the world,” she says.

Embracing Experiences to Create Positive Change

Murphy has spent plenty of time in classrooms and labs, engaged in Army field operations, and working on research projects, but for her making a better world also happens at the heart of the Syracuse University campus. She has also been honored to serve as a Remembrance Scholar representing Alexander Lowenstein, one of 35 Syracuse students lost in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. “It’s not about me or my grades, a job or money. It’s about empathy and compassion, a chance to act forward in their memory and serve my community,” she says. During her senior year, perhaps the most challenging of her academic career, she says this commitment has kept her grounded.

One of Murphy’s favorite campus activities was serving as the ROTC Big Flag Captain for home games during football season last fall. For this duty she marched onto the Dome field in full Army uniform and led the proper unfurling of the American flag. “It was an amazing privilege,” she says. “This responsibility gave me a special opportunity to be part of Syracuse school spirit while also representing my country.”

This summer Murphy will spend precious time with her family and complete Advanced Camp, the most significant training and evaluation event in ROTC, before beginning graduate studies at the University of Bristol in southwest England. She plans to complete master’s degrees in water and environmental management, and water engineering, and then a Ph.D., before working with the Army Corps of Engineers to implement sustainable water resources management. This is the outline of her plans, but really, Bethany Murphy knows no bounds for what form her future will take. One might say she’s a bit like water that way.

Betsey A. Brairton

This story was first published on February 19, 2020 and last updated on .


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