In his lab at Harvard University, Andrew Murray asks how organisms evolve under selective pressure and control the transmission of genetic information from generation to generation. Outside the lab, he is working to offer undergraduate students a more integrated, engaging, and accessible science education.
His lab's studies of chromosome behavior in yeast focus on mechanisms that ensure that genetic material is properly allocated during cell division. He co-discovered the spindle checkpoint, a control circuit that cells use to make sure their chromosomes are lined up properly before chromosome segregation begins. He has identified the signals that activate the checkpoint, as well as six of its components, the target that it inhibits, and the biochemical basis of that inhibition. He developed an in vitro system to study chromosome segregation in mitosis and showed that proteins other than the best-known drivers of the cell cycle, cyclins, must be destroyed to allow pairs of chromatids to separate and migrate toward opposite ends of the dividing cell.
Murray is also interested in experimental approaches to understanding evolution: that is, when a selective pressure is imposed on an organism, how does that induce the evolution of new traits? With Michael Desai and Daniel Fisher (now at Stanford University), he produced and validated a theoretical model for the factors that limit the speed of evolution in asexual populations. He has also demonstrated that when yeast cells come together to form undifferentiated multicellular organisms, they are better able to harvest some nutrients. He showed that this advantage drives the experimental evolution of multicellularity and identified the genetic mutations that give rise to the trait.
Another of Murray's goals is breaking interdisciplinary barriers in education without sacrificing discipline. He served for three years on Harvard's General Education committee, which is charged with reshaping the classes that undergraduates take to attain a liberal arts education. His efforts focused on creating science classes that would be exciting and accessible to non-majors without sacrificing rigor. He is also leading an effort to create an integrated science curriculum that will introduce a group of motivated and prepared freshmen to the breadth of modern science as a single discipline.
He has taught a number of courses that bring together students and faculty from different departments and challenge students to look at problems in new ways. With four other Harvard professors, he conceived, designed, and taught a gateway class for the life sciences that provides an integrated introduction to chemistry and cell and molecular biology, framed around the themes of AIDS and chronic myelogenous leukemia. This class is now the cornerstone of the life science curriculum at Harvard. He has also directed the Bauer Fellows program at Harvard, where he has overseen the participation of 190 undergraduates, including 60 underrepresented minority students, in research in an interdisciplinary environment.
Murray also taught Harvard’s first systems biology course, for students from both the physical and biological sciences, in which students considered whether a few central biological concepts could be explained in ways that satisfy both biologists and physicists. With Harvard Professor of Philosophy Ned Hall, he designed and taught a general education class on statistics and probability that gives students a rigorous grounding in probability and connects the concepts to issues such as opinion polls, clinical trials, and heritability of human traits.