Follow your heart, physicist Cherry Murray, advised female students and others during a lecture yesterday at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). “Follow what you like doing and if you do it well, you’ll get a job,” the tall, slim physicist told an assemblage of 150 people.
The occasion was NJIT’s annual Lillian Gilbreth Colloquium sponsored by the Murray Center for Women in Technology and Dorman Honors College at NJIT. Murray (no relation to the center founder) is the senior vice president for physical sciences research at Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies. In 2002, Discover magazine named Murray one of the 50 most important women in science.
Murray focused on becoming a researcher, the juggling act to manage career and motherhood, the business outlook for the Murray Hill-based giant and more.
Murray, the daughter of a career diplomat and an art teacher, spent her early years traveling around the globe to accommodate her father’s diplomatic career. Rarely did she live in one place for more than a year. The exceptions were periodic returns to Japan and four years in Seoul to graduate from high school. “I loved my high school,” she added. “There were no more than 30 students.”
Her mother expected Murray to become a fine artist. And, until Murray was in tenth grade, she also thought she would follow in her mother’s footsteps. “ I spent many early years painting, taking music and dance lessons,” she said. Thanks, however, to an enthusiastic and talented chemistry teacher in high school, Murray discovered a new love-- thermo dynamics. “I couldn’t believe that you could apply a few simple rules of mathematics and understand this theory,” she said.
By age 17, Murray’s mind was on pursuing physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her older brother, who had graduated from the institution, inspired her. “He told me that I couldn’t go there because I’d never be able to survive,” she recalled grinning. The taunt only whetted her appetite. Despite encouragement from her mother to attend Rice University and from her father to attend his alma mater, Yale University, she pursued MIT.
“I got in long distance and decided to go,” she said. Once there, she fell in love more so with physics, remaining at the Boston University until she received a doctorate in physics. In 1978, while nearing the end of her graduate schooling, an MIT professor steered her toward taking an internship at Bell Labs. Murray has remained there ever since.
Integrating home and work has not been easy, said Murray whose husband, also a physicist, is now retired. The couple, who live in Murray Hill, have two children, James, 17, and Sara, 12. Murray found it hard juggling the demands of parenting while staying ahead in her field. Her initial tack was to establish her career for a decade before tackling parenting. She felt that this plan—although she acknowledged that successful women have followed other ones--gave her a jumpstart on the hectic life that followed. Once her children arrived, which she says were a highlight of her life, her husband’s participation in family matters made car-pooling and other responsibilities easier. Living nearby work, also made life simpler for the couple.
Life at Lucent has also taught Murray how to juggle management and research. The difficulties of being at a company hit hard by economic downturns have only magnified normally tense management issues into challenging ones. Among the most terrible tasks Murray faced were splitting off some 400 researchers—terrific people and researchers, she emphasized-- from the main company.
“It’s been traumatic losing all those great people,” she said. On the plus side, she added, at least all the reductions didn’t come all at once. In addition, half the people were able to move on to jobs at spin-off companies. Many others took lucrative advanced early retirement packages, she said.
Working through 60 percent budget cuts were also not easy. However, management believes that Lucent has stabilized. “We have the same amount of business going from this year to next October,” Murray said. She indicated that the company was leaner with a research budget down from $3 to $1.5 billion. Coming up, technology is moving towards wireless and underground equipment. “But such changes are still more than a decade away because it takes so much money—billions—to build new networks,” she said.
Murray attributed the company’s survival to the inherent organizational strength and skills of its employees and management. “We have the ability to make critical decisions,” she added.
In 1997, NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology established an annual colloquium in honor of industrial engineer Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972), one of the great, pioneering systems thinkers of the 20th century. An expert in motion studies, Gilbreth refocused the attention of engineers on the human element in work. Her 1911 book the Psychology of Management is the foundation on which modern industrial management theory and practice is built. In the 1940s, Gilbreth became the first female professor to teach at Newark College of Engineering.
Gilbreth’s family life was made famous by the books Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles on their Toes, written by two of her children. The impact that Gilbreth made on the engineering profession is less well known. This colloquium corrects that impression by emphasizing the contributions of women to technological enterprises.
The Murray Center is named in honor of the late Constance A. Murray, who served as dean of student services at NJIT from 1978 until her death in 1994. Guided by Murray’s deep respect for diversity, the center works to create a hospitable environment for all people. The center provides a forum for women to discuss matters of mutual interest and concern and also sponsors programs and events to facilitate the mentoring and career development of women.
Dorman Honors College was founded in 1985 and currently enrolls 500 students. The college prepares exceptional students to become leaders in their fields. Students are offered challenging honors classes and seminars taught by faculty members, an array of research opportunities, a special lounge, separate study and computing areas, guaranteed on-campus housing, and a series of colloquia at which speakers and panels discuss current scientific and social issues.
TALKING SHOP--Students at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) Antonietta Alberto (left) of Morris Plains and Chelise Hutchins-Grey (center) of Woodbridge, recently chatted with Cherry Murray (right) of Berkeley Heights. Murray, senior vice president for physical sciences at Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, recently told students about her career in the sciences at the Lillian Gilbreth Colloquium at NJIT. The annual lecture series brings famous women in science to NJIT.