Cathy Murphy, Cancer Center at Illinois member, professor, and Larry R. Faulkner Endowed Chair in Chemistry, is making history as the first female Head of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Murphy has been an Illini since the 1980’s, during her days as a chemistry and biochemistry double major on the Urbana-Champaign campus. In 2009, Murphy returned to the University of Illinois as a professor and principal investigator of the Murphy Research Group.

“It was like coming home, and the facilities on this campus are amazing,” Murphy said.

At that time, Rohit Bhargava, Director of the Cancer Center at Illinois, reached out and began a long history of collaborations between their labs and students.

“Cathy is an amazing scientist and great collaborator that I have been fortunate to work with.  I am grateful to former head Martin Gruebele for his working with us and look forward to collaborating with Cathy as fellow members of the Cancer Center at Illinois and in driving our campus forward with more collaborations,” Bhargava said.

Murphy and members of her lab make inorganic nanoparticles with controlled size, shape, and surface chemistry. These particles, often made of gold, can be fabricated to penetrate tissue and absorb certain wavelengths of light. This property is being studied for use in photothermal therapy, in which nanoparticles enter pathogenic cells, like cancer cells, and undergo light-to-heat conversion to destroy cells.

Murphy and her students are concentrated on basic research but often collaborate with other Cancer Center at Illinois members on studies that can translate from the lab to the clinic.

“We’re always prepared to work with people on that, and the students are always the glue – going back and forth and doing experiments together,” Murphy said.

In her new role as the first female Head of Chemistry in the department’s 152-year history, Murphy plans to continue supporting the students, faculty, and staff, especially those who are underrepresented in the field. 


Such efforts will include working with Lloyd Munjanja, PhD, the Associate Director of Graduate Diversity and Program Climate, who focuses on recruiting from underrepresented populations. There will also be support for retention efforts, ensuring department members have a good experience at the University of Illinois.

“I’m going to be paying a lot of attention to these climate issues. There’s a lot of moving parts to make it a successful experience. I am conscious that we have to get good representation and good role models to make sure that our women and minority students and faculty have support,” Murphy said. “It’s all about the people. We’ve got amazing resources and instruments for our chemists, and I want everyone to find their joy in science.”

Murphy has previously served as the associate director of the Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. She was also recently the first woman to receive the American Chemical Society’s Award in Inorganic Chemistry.

Written by: CCIL Communications Team