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Rice trustee Huda Zoghbi recognized for research on genetics, brain disorders

Courtesy Baylor College of Medicine

By Maria Morkas     1/10/23 9:12pm

Rice emeritus trustee Dr. Huda Zoghbi is a co-recipient of the 2022 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. She and her colleagues received this award for the discovery of genes involved in serious brain disorders.

The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience is presented by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. In 2022, it awarded the prize to Zoghbi and her collaborator Harry T. Orr of the University of Minnesota Medical School, as well as Jean Louis Mandel of the University of Strasbourg and Christopher A. Walsh of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. 

The award recognized Zoghbi’s independent work on Rett syndrome, a rare genetic mutation affecting brain development in girls, and her collaboration with Orr on their work for spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, a progressive movement disorder.

“This is the most special award because it’s recognized our collaboration since 1988,” Zoghbi said. “It’s really special to me [because] collaborations in science are so important, and recognition of work that’s collaborative is really important.”

Zoghbi’s interest in Rett syndrome peaked after encountering two clinical patients who, at the age of two, had lost language and motor skills and had developed specificity and balance issues, among other function losses.

“Having seen the first [two children with Rett syndrome in the United States], I was really intrigued and at the same time feeling the heartache of imagining a girl going through that … I was convinced there must be more,” Zoghbi said. “I asked the volunteers in the clinic … [to bring] me some records. I reviewed them, and I found more girls with Rett syndrome. That’s really what clinched it for me that I want to go to the lab now and find the cause of Rett syndrome.”

Zoghbi has been on the Rice Board of Trustees since 2014 and was later elected to the Baker Institute for Public Policy Board of Advisors in 2020. She completed her pediatric neurology residency and fellowship training at the Baylor College of Medicine and later joined its faculty as a professor of pediatrics, neurology, neuroscience and molecular and human genetics. In 2010, she founded the Jan and Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“The only way you can [make a difference in researching neurological problems] is if you bring people from different disciplines into the same building, encourage them to collaborate, provide them with the tools, support, infrastructure and create a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment,” Zoghbi said. “Suddenly, we can make a difference.”

Zoghbi is also a member of the National Academy of Science, National Academy of Medicine and National Academy of Arts. She has previously won various accolades including the Elaine Redding Brinster Prize in Science or Medicine, Brain Prize and Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Zoghbi said she’s excited about the potential of using genetic and molecular discoveries to develop future therapies. 

“I think there’s lots of opportunities to bring new treatments to so many diseases like Alzheimer’s and different forms of intellectual disabilities,” Zoghbi said. “Brain science is really going to be changing in the next few years because there’s so much opportunity. We’re doing so much biology that informs us that we’re not shooting in the dark.”

Alex Han, a Brown College junior, has been working in the Zoghbi Lab since freshman year. Han said that he appreciates Zoghbi’s ability to simplify complex scientific concepts and her attentiveness to individual projects. 

“She’s really able to simplify the most complex concepts in really simple layman’s terms that even undergrads, or people who haven’t even taken AP Biology, will be able to understand the science behind,” Han said.

Dah-eun Chloe Chung, a postdoctoral associate in the Zoghbi lab, said she admires that Zoghbi is a caring mentor while aspiring to conduct good science.

“She gives a lot of intellectual freedom to her trainees when it comes to developing scientific questions and approaches to test the hypothesis, while also providing with ample feedback to refine the studies and to guide the project to the most scientifically sound direction,” Chung said.

Zoghbi said she would never trade her life in academia for anything else because of how rewarding she finds her work.

“I’m so excited about the field of neuroscience; there’s so much opportunity ... There’s so much that all of the students in neuroscience are poised to discover and make a difference with,” Zoghbi said.

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