Josh Huang headshot

Z. Josh Huang

Z. Josh Huang didn’t set out to be a scientist. At the urging of his father, he aspired to pursue the violin and sports. When the Beijing-born future-neurobiologist was denied admission to Shanghai Conservatory, though, he picked up science instead. A precious copy of a special issue of Scientific American focused on the braincemented his fixation on neuroscience.

After directing his own lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Huang joined Duke as a DST Scholar in 2020.

“The attraction … to come to Duke is to have a better link to the broad biomedical and engineering research community,” Huang, the Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience, said shortly after his arrival to Duke.

Since then, Huang has made significant advancements in neuroscience.

In 2021, Huang co-led a group of scientists undertaking the task of mapping out the mouse’s brain. Though the final atlas “only” charted one large portion of the brain, the 17 papers from over 250 scientists provided an unparalleled roadmap – at a single-cell resolution – of the entire motor cortex in mice, marmosets and humans. It wasn’t easy.

“Connectivity is very difficult to see and map because the shape (of a neuron) is so large and so small at the same time,” Huang said at the time.

One year later, Huang and his team followed up with another major technological feat through their creation of a new way to edit cells and brain circuits using programable RNA. Drawing inspiration from how bacteria senses and signals, Huang developed CellREADR (Cell access through RNA sensing by Endogenous ADAR), which holds great promise for treating everything from cancer to epilepsy.

“We could potentially modify specific types of cell function to manage diseases, regardless of their initial genetic predisposition,” Huang said. “That’s not possible with current therapies or medicine.”