Catherine J. Murphy

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Primary Section: 14, Chemistry
Secondary Section: 33, Applied Physical Sciences
Membership Type: Member (elected 2015)


Catherine J. Murphy is a chemist known for her work on colloidal inorganic nanoparticles, particularly gold nanorods.  She was born in northern New Jersey in 1964 and attended elementary school there.  Her family moved to the Chicago suburbs in 1974, and so, under her maiden name of Catherine A. Jones, she attended junior high school and high school in Glen Ellyn, IL. Murphy earned two BS degrees, one in chemistry and one in biochemistry, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 1986.  She earned her PhD in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison under the direction of A. B. Ellis in 1990, on the topic of semiconductor surface chemistry. She was an NSF and NIH postdoctoral fellow with J. K. Barton at the California Institute of Technology from 1990-1993, working on electron transfer through DNA. Murphy started her independent academic career at the University of South Carolina in 1993. After rising through the ranks at South Carolina, she moved back to UIUC in 2009, where she is the Peter C. and Gretchen Miller Markunas Professor of Chemistry.

Research Interests

Catherine J. Murphy’s laboratory has pioneered the synthesis and use of inorganic nanocrystals as probes of biological systems, and in doing so, has developed key synthetic methods now used in commercial production of a subset of these materials.

Murphy’s early work on the biological application of quantum dots showed that these nanoscale protein-sized particles were capable of selected binding to intrinsically curved DNA structures, which led to a series of studies on the internal dynamics of the DNA double helix on fast time scales.  Her best-known work, however, centers on the seed-mediated growth approach to the synthesis of gold and silver nanorods of controllable aspect ratio.  Her lab has extensively studied the formation mechanisms, optical properties, and surface chemistry of these materials, ultimately leading to the commercial production of gold nanorods by a method that is environmentally sustainable. Murphy’s team has demonstrated the first usage of these materials as “nano strain gauges” to measure cell-induced deformation of soft matrices, photothermal destruction of pathogenic bacteria, the ability of nanomaterials to alter cell phenotype, quantitative understanding of the mechanism of their apparent cytotoxicity and its mitigation, and understanding the fate of engineered nanomaterials to an ecosystem.

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