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'A Mild-Mannered Scientist With a Brash Vision'

Feng Zhang was in high school the first time he engineered cells: while volunteering in a gene therapy lab, he made human melanoma cells glow with green fluorescent protein, the memory of which still excites him, writes Sharon Begley at Stat News.

Zhang, now at the Broad Institute, has helped develop two potentially revolutionary approaches in the time since: optogenetics and CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing.

(Begley notes, though, there is an ongoing patent battle between Zhang and Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna regarding who developed the CRISPR approach first.)

Begley shadowed Zhang since summer and writes that "[w]hat emerged is a portrait of a mild-mannered scientist with a brash vision, a striver with an immigrant's ambition to scale the greatest heights in his adopted land, and a researcher who is impatient with the plodding ways of his craft."

She notes that he often asks researchers in his lab as they propose new projects whether it will be "a 'hack,' clever but inconsequential, or an innovation?"

A postdoc in his lab, Naomi Habib, adds that Zhang's passion is infectious. "He comes back after eating dinner with his family because he genuinely can't wait until morning to know the answer." 

That also means he is quite productive, Begley says, noting that Zhang has written 38 publications since his 2013 CRISPR paper. And, she adds, that he sees CRISPR more as a tool to apply to understand and treat diseases like autism, depression, and schizophrenia. These illnesses, he tells her, take away things that are "a very essential part of being human."