Huang, Alice Shih-Hou (1939- )

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Huang, Alice Shih-hou (1939- )

Chinese-born American microbiologist

Alice Shih-hou Huang's discovery of reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that allows viruses to convert their genetic material into DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid )the molecular basis of heredityled to a major breakthrough in understanding how viruses function. Searching for clues on how to prevent viruses from replicating, Huang also isolated a rabies-like virus that produced mutant strains that interfered with viral growth.

The youngest of four children, Huang was born in Kiangsi, China, on March 22, 1939. Her father, the Right Reverend Quentin K. Y. Huang, was the second Chinese bishop ordained by the Anglican Episcopal Ministry in China. Her mother, Grace Betty Soong Huang, undertook a career of her own by entering nursing school at the age of forty-five. In 1949, when communism pervaded China, the Huangs sent their children to the United States, hoping for a more stable life and greater opportunities.

Huang was ten years old when she arrived in the United States. She studied at an Episcopalian boarding school for girls in Burlington, New Jersey, and at the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., and became a United States citizen her senior year in high school. While in China, Huang had seen many people suffering from illness and decided to become a physician. She attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts from 1957 to 1959, and subsequently enrolled in a special program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she earned her B.A. in 1961 and her M.A. in 1963. While at Johns Hopkins, she chose to pursue medicine not as a physician, but as a microbiologist. She published several papers on viruses, including the herpes simplex viruses, and earned her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in 1966. That same year Huang served as a visiting assistant professor at the National Taiwan University. In 1967, Huang worked as a postdoctoral fellow with David Baltimore at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. Huang and Baltimore married in 1968; they have one daughter.

Huang and Baltimore took their work to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. At the time, scientists understood that the genetic material DNA in cells was converted into ribonucleic acid (RNA , nucleic acids associated with the control of chemical activities within cells), and then into proteins. But one of the viruses Huang studied had an enzyme that did something differentit made RNA from RNA. The work led to Baltimore's research on tumor viruses and his discovery of the enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which threw the usual process in reverse by converting RNA to DNA. Baltimore and American oncologist Howard Temin, who had independently discovered reverse transcriptase, were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1975 for their work on tumor viruses.

Huang became assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School in 1971, was promoted to associate professor in 1973, and to full professor in 1979. She also served as an associate at the Boston City Hospital from 1971 to 1973 and director of the infectious diseases laboratory at the Children's Hospital in Boston from 1979 to 1989. Huang studied a rabies-like virus that produced mutant strains, which interfered with further growth of the viral infection. She sought to understand where the mutants originated and how they affected the viral population, knowledge she hoped could be applied to halt the spread of viral infections in humans. For this research, Huang was awarded the Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology and Immunology in 1977. In 1987, she was appointed trustee of the University of Massachusetts. The following year Huang became president of the American Society for Microbiology, the first Asian American to head a national scientific society in the United States. She is also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology , and the Academia Sinica in Taiwan. Huang remained at Harvard until 1991, when she was appointed Dean for Science at New York University.

Though Huang sees her role in administration at New York University as important and necessary, her first love remains basic research. Huang has numerous research publications to her credit, and has served on the editorial boards of Intervirology, Journal of Virology, Reviews of Infectious Diseases, Microbial Pathogenesis, and Journal of Women'sHealth. She became a trustee of Johns Hopkins University in 1992, and joined the council of the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in 1993. In addition to her duties as university administrator, scientist, and mother, Huang is an avid reader of mystery novels, and enjoys sailing.

See also Viral genetics; Virology; Virus replication; Viruses and responses to viral infection