Originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Zach Murphy and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois where he lived with his grandmother, mother, and two siblings. When he was eight, Murphy’s grandmother passed away, and Murphy’s mother relocated with her children to Hawaii to be near her family members. Murphy describes his childhood in Hawaii as being surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as the abundant natural beauty of the islands. During these years, he grew to understand the importance of hard work and sacrifice through the example his mother set as a single parent working multiple jobs to ensure her children’s needs were met.
When he was sixteen, his family returned to Pennsylvania where Murphy had the opportunity to develop a relationship with his father. As Murphy completed high school, he set his sights on community college, hoping to spend the first years of his tertiary education homing in on the right path for himself. He also wanted to use the time to mature as a student, and he began applying a new level of focus and diligence to his studies.
Attending Northampton Community College, Murphy explored different fields of study and discovered that human biology held a particular interest for him, and he mapped out a career plan to become a physical therapist. When he needed extra help to keep up with his coursework, he visited the tutoring center at Northampton, an open-access resource for students that provided tutoring in any science subject. There, a tutor named Paul Pruce inspired Murphy to dig deeper into the “Why” behind the concepts he was learning, modeling a love of learning for its own sake that ignited a passion in Murphy to further his own understanding and give back as an educator himself someday.
While considering undergraduate universities as a transfer student, an interviewer at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania expressed to Murphy that he might be more fulfilled pursuing a career in medicine than in physical therapy. The advice made a strong impression on Murphy. Upon transferring to Misericordia to complete his bachelor’s degree, he declared a major in Biology and completed pre-medicine coursework.
Facing the choice between different paths into the medical field, Murphy shadowed both PAs and physicians at local hospitals, observing for himself the strengths and drawbacks of each career. He found that many of the doctors encouraged him to become a PA for the benefits in lateral mobility, family life, lessened debt, and a broader scope of practice. For Murphy, as someone who valued an ongoing quest for knowledge, the possibility to switch specialties was a distinct appeal of the PA profession. While shadowing, Murphy also discovered his calling within the medical field as he observed the thin line between life and death that critically ill patients walked and the transformative role that a provider could play to save the lives of these individuals.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in biology in 2015, Murphy applied to PA schools, but did not receive any offers of admission. Hearing the advice to undertake “something different” to set himself apart, he decided to take on a role in the tutoring center of his alma mater, Northampton College. Simultaneously, he also worked as a laboratory technician and an urgent care medical assistant. Remembering this time, Murphy reflects that “everything happens for a reason,” emphasizing that it was this time working as a tutor following his unsuccessful admissions cycle that he and his colleagues began to develop their YouTube channel, “Ninja Nerd.”
Along with his fellow tutors Rob and Kristin Beach, themselves at the time pre-health students in physical therapy and nursing respectively, Murphy envisioned a learning platform for students who were unable to attend tutoring hours because of schedule constraints. They began to produce videos explaining anatomy and physiology and quickly found that their content was being viewed by students all over the globe, not only the learners they had hoped to reach at their own college.
Murphy once again applied to PA school, and with his new, unique experience, he was offered a seat at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. PA school presented new challenges for Murphy as he tried to find a balance between the pursuit of top grades, internalizing the information that would be truly useful to him as a working PA, and continuing to produce content for Ninja Nerd. He established new friendships that provided him with reassurance and perspective, helping to focus his attitude on learning with the goal to truly understand the material, rather than to get a specific grade.
Approaching graduation in 2020 and determined to work in critical care medicine, Murphy applied to over eighty jobs, ultimately receiving an offer to work in the neurocritical care unit at Lehigh Hospital in eastern Pennsylvania. Taking care of patients following neurological catastrophes like large vessel ischemic strokes and cerebral hemorrhages, he finds particular fulfilment in caring for patients who have suffered aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhages, who often come in barely alive but, with the care of the neurocritical team, are able to leave the hospital talking and moving only a few weeks later. In his role, Murphy thrives on the autonomy granted to him by the attending physicians and reflects on the way that PAs are often the backbone of hospital units.
Ninja Nerd has continued to grow with their YouTube channel having over 2.5 million subscribers and nearly 200 million views as of September 2023. Murphy and his team seek to produce content that is a supplemental resource for students in medical, PA, and nursing school, providing a comprehensive understanding of medical topics at a level of depth beyond what they can hear in a lecture or learn in other videos. Murphy envisions online medical education resources as a complement to more traditional medical education and stresses the value of inspiring a love of learning and science in those who view Ninja Nerd videos and content.
Outside of his work as a neurocritical care PA and Ninja Nerd, Murphy loves spending time with his wife and their two French bulldogs, Gibbs and McGee. He finds any opportunity he can to spend time at the beach where he enjoys bodyboarding and surfing.
Acknowledgments: This biography was prepared by Sophi Scarnewman, with the assistance of Zach Murphy, and was submitted to the Society in November 2023. The photo is courtesy of Mr. Murphy.