Posted by Guest on June 14, 2017 in Blog

Huda_Zoghbi.jpgBy Oday Yousif

For Dr. Huda Zoghbi, taking risks is key to understanding who she is, her approach to science and her research. Born in Lebanon in 1955, Dr. Zoghbi is a neurology and pediatric neurology physician who is renowned for her work on genetics and neuroscience. Growing up in Beirut, she spent much of her youth pursuing literature and had a passion for Shakespeare. But it was her mother that told her medicine was a “much simpler career” and encouraged her to study biology setting her on a path toward the medical field. Her father was a businessman that made olive oil and sold soaps but who loved to read and always encouraged learning in their household.

Dr. Zoghbi began attending the American University of Beirut in 1973 and later enrolled in their medical school. Soon after, her medical studies were interrupted as Lebanon’s civil war broke out.

An incredibly dedicated student, she continued to attend lectures in the basement of the university along with her peers and would spend most nights sleeping there, in the corner of the women’s bathroom, unable to make her way home safely. Fearing for their children’s lives, Dr. Zoghbi’s parents sent her and her siblings to Texas where their sister lived. As they left, the borders closed behind them and she knew there was little chance of going back to her war-torn country. Finding herself unable to return home and arriving far too late to transfer to most schools, Dr. Zoghbi applied to two schools and was accepted to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Currently an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, founding director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and a professor in the departments of Pediatrics, Molecular and Human Genetics, and Neurology and Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Zoghbi’s research ambitions began in 1983 with her desire to study Rett syndrome. Rett syndrome is a neurological disease that almost exclusively affects young girls and was generally ignored by neurologists because of the limited information available. After six to 18 months of normal childhood, Rett Syndrome unexpectedly  presents itself in baby girls and leads to underdeveloped arms and legs as well as abnormal body movements.

zoghbi.huda15-1200-520-20140602162312.jpgDeeply affected by the challenges faced by her patients and their families, Dr. Zoghbi was inspired to conduct the research after seeing a number of girls who had Rett syndrome and been given a series of misdiagnoses. Following a decade and a half of work, her research led her to a breakthrough in 1999 when she identified a mutated gene strand in the disorder that allowed researchers to study it more thoroughly and possibly lead to a cure. Her work has even been shown in mice to reverse the symptoms of Rett syndrome. When it comes to fueling her passion for research, Dr. Zoghbi says, "It becomes all about contemplating how to best help the patient, and that's exactly where I want to be."

In 2017, Dr. Zoghbi was the recipient of the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for her work and research into Rett syndrome and Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1), a neurological disorder that leads to poor hand, eye, and mouth coordination and other physical and cognitive impairments. The annual prize is awarded to outstanding individuals pursuing scientific advancements in the sciences and math. While the prize money is hers to keep, she has committed to using the money to creating endowments and grants in the namesake of those who helped her reach her successes.

Dr. Zoghbi is married to Dr. William Zoghbi, a professor of Cardiology at the Baylor College of Medicine. They have been together since they were young medical students in Lebanon and studying to become doctors. They have two children and recently became grandparents. “My life is two things:”, she says, “the people I love and my work. With a little bit of organization, it can be done.” As an immigrant, she has been recently critical of President Trump’s immigration rhetoric saying, “if you start eliminating a pool of talented scientists, you will slow the discovery machine” and “the world will suffer.”

A pioneer in her field of genetics and neuroscience, Dr. Zoghbi’s research have garnered her a number of other recognitions including honorary degrees from Yale University, Meharry Medical School, and Middlebury College. Despite an already momentous career of discovery and impact, Dr. Zoghbi remains determined in her research, stating “I will not retire until I find a treatment for any of those diseases that I work on."

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.

Oday Yousif is a summer 2017 AAI external intern at No One Left Behind.