NewsCut Flashback: How a victim of a civil war became a science giant

The story of how I came to host an MPR talk show about neuroscience a few years ago has a lesson to it. Producer Marcheta Fornoff had suggested the show with three giants of neurology who were in town for a national conference on a subject about which I knew nothing and feared I didn’t have the chops to make it work.

But I come from an old school, where producers call the shots and hosts pay attention. And that’s how my favorite talk show moment in 27 years at MPR News happened.

All of them had other intentions in life originally — two wanted to be artists — but ended up in a field that saves people and changes the world.

(Originally published on May 20, 2016)

Three giants of neurology will be talking about the mystery in our head, but one guest’s story of how she ended up in a position to be the human who solved the cause of a horrific neurological disease is worth particular attention. It’s also a story that should frame the various debates over immigration.

Dr. Huda Zoghbi, who is also the president of the McKnight Endowment Fund Board, is from Lebanon. She was in her first year of medical school when the civil war broke out. But she wanted to finish the school year. So she packed a suitcase and she and others lived in the basement of a campus building, taking lectures from her professors day and night while bombs fell all around the campus.

She wanted to finish the school year that badly.

She became a doctor and, during her residency, she encountered a young girl whose development was reversed after appearing to develop normally for the first two years of life.

She wanted to find out what caused the disorder.

So Dr. Zoghbi started her career over again, going back to school and, eventually, becoming a researcher. And 16 years after meeting the girl, she discovered the gene that causes this:

She also collaborated with a researcher at the University of Minnesota to discover the role that a degradation of a protein plays in spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 disorder. That might help unlock the mystery of Alzheimer’s.

“Many applicants don’t come here anymore,” she said in the 2011 interview posted above. “They go to Europe because of the concern, and difficulties, and bureaucracy that makes it very challenging for immigrants to come here.”