Montana State University

Car crash changed her life, but a refocused Flynn Murray finds success at MSU

August 22, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

MSU civil engineering student Flynn Murray, assisted by her dog, Layla, in her office at MSU. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)

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BOZEMAN –Flynn Murray was seriously injured when she fell asleep five years ago while driving back to Bozeman after a day of working and late afternoon skiing.

Because of her spinal cord injury, the Minnesota native who moved west to attend Montana State University, ski and climb spent three weeks in Bozeman Deaconess Hospital and four months at Craig Hospital in Denver. She then moved back to the Red River Valley – said to have some of the flattest land in the world – to recuperate at her parents’ home for a year.

The accident along U.S. Highway 191 definitely changed her life, said Murray, who describes her condition as “incomplete quadriplegia.” She can’t walk, but she can move her arms with limited use of her hands. Her biceps work normally, but her triceps are weak.

Yet the accident hardly destroyed her future.

“My life has changed direction, but it is moving forward in a positive direction,” Murray said.

Back at MSU since 2010, called an inspiration throughout the College of Engineering, Murray said, “I have decided to determine for myself the impact my injury will have on my life. I will move forward with the goal of living a life I am proud of. I take the advice of experts, but I also use my own judgment. … I will always hope for a cure, but I will not waste one day of my life waiting for it.”

The accident created physical challenges, but Murray said it also removed some of the distractions that used to interfere with her studies.

“Before the accident, her focus was on skiing and climbing as much as possible and just being outside. She is a very passionate person,” said MSU faculty member Mike Berry, one of Murray’s friends and mentors in the Department of Civil Engineering.

Murray now focuses that passion and dedication on academia, Berry said.

After the accident, Murray raised her grade point average from a 3.27 to 3.8. She participated in the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program and received MSU’s Presidential Emerging Scholar Grant. She earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering last December, wheeling across the platform with her dog, Layla, to receive her diploma from MSU President Waded Cruzado.

With Berry as her adviser, Murray is now pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering. She was one of six graduate students affiliated with MSU to receive a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in 2014. The fellowship goes to graduate students who show promise of making significant contributions in their fields. It pays Murray’s tuition and gives her more than $32,000 a year for three years.

“I think she’s a very qualified person for this, so I wasn’t too surprised that she won,” said Berry, one of her nominators. “I was very grateful she did. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Another nominator, Professor Sarah Codd in the MSU Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, said, “She inspires me and all she meets. She embraces life and shows that we can always achieve more than we think we can.”

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was designed for a purpose, and Murray fits it perfectly, Codd added.

The NSF program was established to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforce its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics divisions who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. The oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the program has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. Its reputation is said to follow recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders who contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching.

“I have worked with a large number of talented young scientists and engineers over 20 years in academia,” Codd said. “… Flynn is definitely in the same league as those students with respect to her potential for success in graduate school and research. Most important is her potential to lead as an inspirational faculty member in an academic setting. I can confidently place her in the top 1 percent of students I have encountered in my academic career.”

Berry said the NSF fellowship, in addition to the prestige it carries, frees Murray up to conduct research without looking for additional sources of income.

“I’m really thankful she has it,” he said.

Concrete is a big focus area in MSU’s Department of Civil Engineering, and Murray researches the structural performance of steel tubes filled with concrete. Concrete-filled tubes are efficient building elements as they provide sufficient strength, eliminate the need for forms and decrease construction time, Murray said. The tubes come in different sizes and can be used in a variety of structures, including bridges and buildings.

She enjoys researching concrete because she enjoys solving tough problems and she’s a structural engineer who likes “Finite Element Analysis,” Murray said. Finite Element Analysis is a modeling technique that can be used to simulate the performance of concrete-filled tubes, thus reducing the need for costly laboratory tests. Murray said she plans to share her findings in a variety of ways, one of them being through a design guide she will develop for builders.

She also plans to become a professor who both teaches and conducts research, Murray said. Pointing to several mentors in the College of Engineering, including Berry, Codd, Jerry Stephens and Ted Lang, she said, “Interaction with active professors has demonstrated teaching and performing research is an excellent career to continue the learning process throughout one’s life. I believe a graduate degree will offset some of my physical limitations allowing me to secure employment where my intelligence, creativity, personality and mentorship skills are of primary importance.”

She added that she appreciates all the support she has received throughout the university.

“I am very thankful for all that MSU does to make my education possible,” Murray said.

Outside of MSU, Murray has another team that supports her. She and Layla are able to live alone because of two assistants who come to her apartment during the day to cook, clean and help get her out of the door in the morning, Murray said.

Layla has always been her cherished pet, but she became more than that after the accident, Murray said. While Murray was in rehab, Layla went through training to become a service dog. Murray jokes that Layla could do more to help around the apartment, but, “As far as emotional support goes, she’s priceless. She’s been through a lot with me.”

Layla accompanies Murray to campus and is so well-known that her name is listed by the door of the office that Murray shares with other graduate students on the fourth floor of Cobleigh Hall. Layla has a dog bed beside Murray’s desk.

Murray drives to and from MSU in a van equipped with hand controls. She moves around campus in a manual wheelchair. She takes notes by inserting a pen between her wrist and a specially-made glove and moving her wrists. She still skis, but now on adaptive skis. She rides the roads of Gallatin County on a hand cycle.

“Until science kicks in, I’m kind of where I am at, but I keep trying to get stronger through biking, going to the gym, skiing,” Murray said. “The stronger I can get, the more independent I can be.”

Her life since the accident has been filled with challenges, but Murray – who is known for her huge smile as well as her many accomplishments -- said she doesn’t dwell on them.

“I have bad days, for sure,” she said. “I have tried to stay upbeat for the majority of it. You don’t want to waste days feeling sorry for yourself. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

 

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu