George J. Murphy will admit he generally doesn’t know the day or time. This is more understandable when you consider Murphy’s occupation: He’s a scientist who works with stem cells — which hold great potential for discovery, but are also quite needy. Stem cells must be tended to, constantly.
Murphy, codirector of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, may be at the office at any time of day or night, so surroundings matter.
When he and his colleagues launched their research center in 2013, they set out to create a space that was colorful, inviting, and representative of the people who fill it. Science and art collide in this research center.
“Science is always seen as a very technical thing, but I’m a big believer that science is an art and it requires a lot of creativity,” said Murphy, 45.
The most striking example of artistic inspiration is the samurai. Murphy, long fascinated by Japanese culture, painted the life-size warrior on the wall of his private office over a period of six months. It gave him a way to manage the stress of opening a new research center. Now it’s a symbol for the figurative battles that he and his colleagues fight together against terrible diseases.
The hallways are decorated with other paintings, and pictures of stem cells. There are also photographs of many of the 60 people who work there, posing together at the office barbecue.
Murphy started the Center for Regenerative Medicine — or “CReM,” as they call it — with his two closest friends, Darrell Kotton and Gustavo Mostoslavsky. They met while doing their postdoctoral research at Harvard.
“I get to do this work with my best friends on a project we’re super passionate about,” Murphy said. “It’s kind of like our baby. Now it’s really hard to ever think about walking away from it.”
The experiments happen down the hall from Murphy’s office in a spacious laboratory. He and his colleagues work with induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells come from the skin or blood of an adult — they do not require the use of embryos — and they can be developed into brain cells, liver cells, blood cells, and more.
“There’s this amazing fruitful discussion, where even if somebody is making something like liver, which is really different than blood, they’ll have a discussion,” Murphy said. “That is what has made us work, that you have this network of communication.”
Scientists here focus on sickle cell disease, chronic lung disease, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that particularly affect the underserved communities that represent a significant portion of Boston Medical Center’s patients.
This is not a random undertaking for Murphy. He grew up in Waterbury, Conn., raised by a relative, without the guidance of his parents and without a lot of money. He was the first in his family to attend college.
After receiving his undergraduate degree at Trinity College, he spent about two years as a full-time rock climber before taking a job as a laboratory technician in San Francisco. That led to earning a PhD at Oxford, followed by a fellowship at Harvard.
Murphy’s samurai is not the only thing keeping him company when he’s at his desk, losing track of time. There’s a fish tank, an impressive cactus, and shelves dotted with objects he has collected from around the world, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, South Africa, and Qatar. He has statues, swords, and an ostrich egg.
Murphy does not take traditional vacations. Before or after a work trip, he travels to remote and sometimes dangerous areas to immerse himself in different cultures. He brings pieces of those experiences back to his office, which sits beside Interstate 93, overlooking the county jail.
“Growing up, my life was not great. There was a lot of trauma,” Murphy said.
“My life now is amazing. So I like to do these things to keep myself grounded, to see how people really live.”