March is for All Women: Huda Zoghbi
Born in Lebanon
In 1954, Huda Zoghbi was born in Beirut where she was raised. Throughout her life, Zoghbi expressed a deep interest in literature, and she was particularly taken with works by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and William Wordsworth.
When the time came to go to college, she intended on pursuing a literature degree. However, her mother told her that, “A woman growing up in the Middle East should pick a career ensuring independence and security, while she can always write on the side.”
Per her mother’s advice, Zoghbi attended the American University of Beirut as a biological science major in 1973.
Medical School During the War
Two years after her entrance to the American University of Beirut, Zoghbi began her studies at the university’s medical school. However, the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1976, concurrent with her first year of Medical School. However, even the War could not get the students to leave! Zoghbi and her classmates decided to stay at the university and continue their studies.
“Bombs were falling all around the medical campus… I couldn’t commute 500 feet, let alone the two miles it took me to get home every day”, Zoghbi recalls. She and her 62 classmates decided to stay on campus. They lived mostly underground, in double-walled rooms, with their professors to finish the school year.
Although the medical school was considered safe, there was a thin barrier between the school and the outside war. For example, Huda met her future husband, William Zoghbi, and the couple went for a walk, but narrowly missed a bullet hitting one of them. This contextualized how close and serious the war really was.
However, Huda’s younger brother was later injured by shrapnel walking back from his high school. This prompted the family to move to Texas, where the eldest sister was a philosophy professor. Although this move was thought to be temporary, there was no end in sight for the war. Therefore, neither Huda nor her siblings could return to Lebanon, while their parents stayed in Beirut.
Forging a Path in the U.S.
Just like many other foreign-born Arab-Americans, Zoghbi came to the United States and had to forge her own path, despite many different obstacles. She did whatever she could to continue her education. Although she missed deadlines for most medical colleges, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee allowed her to join a couple of months into the academic year.
Thanks to her strength, perseverance, and determination, she excelled academically. William joined her for medical school, as well. Following their graduation, the couple moved to Houston, Texas in 1979, where she began a pediatrics residency at the Baylor College of Medicine.
When it came to specialization, Zoghbi was drawn to both cardiology and neurology. While she was initially more fascinated with cardiology, she discovered her true passion: neurology and the ways that neurodevelopment can go awry. Her new interest guided her career in research after she changed her specialty to neurology. Additionally, she and William, who became a cardiologist, married shortly after!
Although Dr. Huda Zoghbi is still practicing, she has accomplished a great deal in her career. She researches neurodegenerative disorders such as Spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1), animal genes related to balance, Rett syndrome, and a link to Alzheimer’s disease. These links provide more information about the nature and details of her research.
Today Zoghbi is praised as a top geneticist, and she serves as a professor at the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics, Baylor College of Medicine.
Arab Women Get the Job Done
In her career, Zoghbi faced many obstacles. Even in her education, the war could have disrupted her path to where she is today. However, she would not allow it.
In an interview, Zoghbi admits she did not have the confidence she did now when she first began her studies! She said, “There are three things that for me were crucial in my career: mentors believed in me, a supportive family, and the sparse rewards of positive data that sustained me and allowed me to continue… I don’t think my lack of confidence is unique, and it’s important for young scientists to realize that.”
May all Arab-American women in medicine be inspired, and follow the example of those like Huda Zoghbi!