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New professor joins WSU with national recognition

Murray stands in a field swinging a net back and forth.
Elizabeth Murray collecting insects while on vacation this summer.
Photo courtesy Elizabeth Murray.

Washington State University’s entomology department has a new scientist joining the faculty, and she comes in with a national award to her name.

Elizabeth Murray, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, will move to Pullman to work at WSU in February. She will also receive the 2019 Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Teaching Award at the group’s national conference in November.

“I really enjoy teaching and mentoring students and newer scientists,” said Murray, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. “I’ve learned that if I prepare and put in the effort, I benefit just by knowing that students will leave my course with a deeper appreciation for subjects that I love.”

Murray, a native of Minnesota, will take over as the director of WSU’s M.T. James Museum and do research in phylogenetics, the field that studies how organisms are related to each other. She loves looking at the evolutionary history of insects and understanding the diverse ways that they change and adapt.

One example of her research interests is looking at bees, of which there are over 20,000 species found around the world. But there is a group of insects called pollen wasps that originated around the same time as bees with only 350 or so distinct species.

“I want to find out why pollen wasps haven’t had nearly the evolutionary success that bees have had,” said Murray, who will be the Dr. Horace S. and Vilma G. Telford & Telford Family Professor at WSU. “And if we figure out why, then maybe we can use that answer to learn new ways to help pollinators.”

Her work isn’t easy, and requires huge amounts of data to get answers.

“Finding patterns in evolution takes a lot of work, looking at data in the right way to get answers,” Murray said.

Murray reaches up high to pull a wooden rectangle of the top shelf, lined with many other rectangles.
Murray pulling a box of wasps out of a collection at an insect museum in Linz, Austria. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Murray

She will also be teaching courses at WSU, something that the award-winner clearly enjoys. But it’s the subject matter, and passing along her love of insects, that makes it easy for her.

Although Murray received an early career award, she’s not new to bugs.

“At age 7, I went to career day at school as an entomologist,” she said. “I’ve been fascinated by bugs and insects for as long as I can remember. So to have this as my career, and to go work at a place like WSU, is fantastic.”

Learn more about WSU’s M.T. James Entomological Collection at http://entomology.wsu.edu/outreach/m-t-james-museum/.

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Scott Weybright, Public Relations/Communications Coordinator, 509-335-2967