Skip to content

Published on 

Scientific researcher by day and champion diver at night. This Northeastern athlete leads dual lives

The reigning Coastal Athletic Association diver of the year is pursuing degrees in biochemistry (undergraduate) and biotechnology (master’s). She also recently completed a co-op.

A person wearing a blue lab coat and goggles works with test tubes inside a laboratory.
12/14/23 – BOSTON, MA. – Erin Murphy, who studies biochemistry, works on research in the EXP building on Dec. 14, 2023. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

By day Erin Murphy was outfitted with personal protective equipment in a biotech wet lab as she explores potential remedies for infectious diseases. At night the Northeastern junior was back on campus diving with her Husky teammates in pursuit of a conference championship.When exhaustion chased her to bed, Murphy reminded herself this is why she chose Northeastern. The reigning Coastal Athletic Association diver of the year is pursuing degrees in both biochemistry (undergraduate) and biotechnology (master’s). For the past six months, of course, that academic work was on hold during her co-op as a scientific researcher at BioNTech SE in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Northeastern’s Boston campus.

“This is the hardest thing I’ll probably ever do in my life,” Murphy said while she was balancing full-time work with competitive diving practices in the evenings and meets on weekends. “Some nights I don’t even go on my phone. I just crawl into bed and knock out.”

Along the way Murphy earned two CAA diver of the week awards, including a November sweep of the 1-meter and 3-meter events to help drive the Huskies’ first victory at the four-team Terrier Invitational since 2007 — an achievement all the more impressive considering the dual lives Murphy has been leading.

A person wearing a blue lab coat works inside a laboratory.
Murphy, who studies biochemistry, is involved in the preclinical infectious disease work at BioNTech US. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Among the five divers on the Northeastern women’s swimming and diving team, Murphy, Lizzie Meschisen and Isabelle Chambers competed last semester while on co-op — the university’s signature experiential learning program where students integrate semesters of academic study with periods of full-time employment.

Based on the inherent commitment to games and practices, year-round training, and the mental focus necessary to compete at the highest level, varsity athletes at Northeastern are encouraged to view their sport as a second full-time job. Going on co-op while competing adds a third dimension for student-athletes like Murphy.

“I wanted to dive at the collegiate level but I didn’t want that to be my entire college experience,” Murphy said of her decision to attend Northeastern. “A lot of students that I talk to are amazed that student-athletes even do co-op because of the commitment. It’s definitely a lot.”

Erin Murphy

Dive, Women’s Swimming and Diving

Personal Bests:

1M Dive
3M Dive

A ‘rising star’

Murphy rose at 7 a.m., departed her on-campus apartment within an hour and bused or walked (weather permitting) to Cambridge, where the workday started at 9 a.m. Her co-op was propelling a dream that she’s been pursuing since high school.

“My science courses were always the most interesting,” she said. “I’ve always been a very curious person. There’s a lot of unanswered questions in science that would be amazing to answer — to help out those that are fighting various diseases and cancers, which is what I’m doing at BioNTech.”

Murphy was heavily involved in the lab’s preclinical infectious disease work, said Lexi Walls, a senior scientist in systems immunology at BioNTech US. It was an investment in learning and much more as Murphy shared her research findings and experimental plans in meetings with a variety of disciplinary teams at the company.

“She works hard in the lab, testing novel infectious disease targets to find the best performers to take further into pre-clinical models down the line,” Walls said while serving as Murphy’s supervisor. “Erin has brought and expanded multiple techniques to the group that were not previously routine in our lab efforts. And while she has contributed to pushing projects forward for the company, she has also balanced learning many new techniques during her co-op with ease — a testament to her dedication and excitement about the work she’s doing.”

Walls was accommodating and flexible in helping Murphy manage her work while also attending practices and competitions. Murphy often arrived early to ensure that BioNTech deadlines were met. 

“Every single day is very eventful,” Murphy said. “I’m basically completing two days in one day, if that makes sense.”

Her love for the work assured Murphy that she has chosen the right career.

“She is driven to learn and improve,” Walls said. “She was always clear from the start about both her diving and scientific goals, and had a plan in place when she came in to achieve both at the highest level.”

Walls referred to Murphy as “a rising star.” 

“She has been able to successfully balance both a full workload and a diving career,” Walls said as Murphy approached the end of her co-op in December. “We will have a big hole on the team when she is gone.”

A sport of fear

“Kiki is always running from her co-op — literally,” said Northeastern’s Lauren Colby, the reigning CAA diving coach of the year, while referring to Murphy by her nickname. “A lot of times she walks from work so she’s out of breath when she gets here. And then the second we get here we’re starting — so she’s having to change her focus to a whole other thing.

“It’s something that we work on: just trying to be present in the moment.”

That sense of presence matters in a sport that leaves even its best performers in a state of persistent vulnerability, spinning high above the flat surface of the water as gravity takes hold.

“I think fear is one of the biggest components of diving,” Murphy said. “It’s not a sport for the mentally weak, let’s put it that way. You have to deal with that fear and it’s something that never really goes away at practice or at meets. No matter how many times you do a certain dive, it is still scary every single time.”

The worst outcome, as Murphy quickly added, is a loud and bruising landing flat on the water. But knowing that doesn’t negate the anxiety of leaping from a springboard as high as a story above the surface.

NGN Magazine, in your inbox.

Sign up to receive thoughtful stories that chronicle innovations and examine inspiring solutions to global problems.

“You have to have the right coaching and environment because you need someone who’s going to motivate you to push through that fear,” said Murphy, who credits Colby’s positive approach. “When your teammates are cheering you on and they want to see you succeed, it doesn’t seem like the fear is such a big thing. You want to do it for them.

“A lot of what gets me through the fear is knowing that there are other girls who are going to do the same dive and they’re there with me. And knowing that if I do a certain dive, they might be motivated, too. I want to be a good teammate but also a good leader.”

Working through those concerns creates all kinds of long-term benefits, Murphy believes.

“It has translated definitely into other aspects of my life,” she said. “If things seem too overwhelming between school and diving and my personal life, I know that it’ll all work out because I have that mental strength to get through any sort of stressful situation. I know that I’ve done it before. And I can do it again in any environment.”

The goal of contributing to an enduring lifestyle is a priority for Colby.

“We’re not just coaching them to be great on the pool deck,” said Colby, who has remained in contact with many of her divers long after their graduation from Northeastern. “They are talented, amazing athletes, but they’re also amazing people. We try to build that confidence in them so that they can carry all of these things that they’ve learned and can be successful in life.”

‘We treat it like a team sport’

Diving practices at Cabot Physical Education Center began at 5:15 p.m. last semester to accommodate the student-athletes who were serving co-ops. Team meetings and strength training routinely delayed Murphy’s return home until 9 p.m. or later. 

“The hardest thing right now for me is dinner,” Murphy said. “I guess I could find time between co-op and practice but it’s really hard to dive with a full stomach.”

It’s important to note that she wasn’t complaining about any of it — including the six-day workweek that included extended practice and community service work on Saturdays.

“I truly love Saturdays because we do drills on the dry board and on a trampoline that remind me why I dive in general — it’s such a fun sport,” Murphy said. “And then the rest of Saturday I’m typically hanging out with teammates. 

“We have a really strong bond and I think that plays a huge role in competition because we’re always cheering for each other and supporting each other and just hoping for everyone to succeed and do their best. Even though it is an individual sport, we treat it like a team sport.”

I wanted to dive at the collegiate level but I didn’t want that to be my entire college experience. A lot of students that I talk to are amazed that student-athletes even do co-op because of the commitment. It’s definitely a lot.

Erin Murphy, a Northeastern undergraduate studying biochemistry and the reigning Coastal Athletic Association diver

In January, having finished her co-op, Murphy returned to the traditional student-athlete routine. Weekday practices have shifted to the afternoon for the divers (while the team’s swimmers are now practicing at night, to accommodate the co-ops they’re now serving.) 

During the recent holiday break, the swimming and diving team spent eight days in London for a training trip. The Huskies will compete in four meets before heading to the CAA Championships in Hampton, Virginia. Last year Northeastern finished third, its best result since joining the conference in 2006, and Murphy was in the middle of that success while placing second at 3-meters (1.1 points out of first) and third at 1-meter (hitting a final dive to climb to the podium). 

“I’m looking forward to it,” says Murphy, who last year advanced to the NCAA Zone A Swimming and Diving Championships with diving teammates Lauren O’Sullivan and Anelise Kim. “This team has a lot of heart and I’m really excited to see what we do.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @IanatNU.