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Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Mia Huang

Associate Professor, Chemistry

Scripps Research

Dr. Huang’s research focuses on the biological functions of glycans. By developing chemical tools to identify glycan interactomes, her work aims to impact pregnancy health risks like preeclampsia – a common yet poorly understood pregnancy disorder – and seeking markers that could predict complications long before they occur.

"You’re putting your neck on the line for a research area that is not as mature as others."

- Dr. Mia Huang

Dr. Mia Huang: Undeterred in the Quest for Women’s Health Breakthroughs 

When Dr. Mia Huang was a child in the Philippines, her parents owned a machine shop, and she has been curious about how things work ever since. She arrived in New York at the age of 18 and attended Queens College as a pre-med student, but soon became fascinated by how cells work. “I didn’t know what a scientist looked like,” she admits. “I wanted to be like Dexter – a cartoon scientist I loved as a kid.”  


She was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 


Dr. Huang soon discovered that she loved tinkering with molecules. She would take that passion and turn it into a PhD with a focus on figuring out how to create synthetic molecules to replace biological molecules. Her research focuses on some of the smallest yet most powerful elements in biology – complex sugar molecules called glycans. These molecules may hold the key to driving important breakthroughs in women’s health, among other under-researched areas. This work to learn more about pregnancy health risks like preeclampsia – a common yet poorly understood pregnancy disorder – could help discover markers that could predict complications long before they occur. 


The challenge for Dr. Huang and other researchers like her is that while women’s health research is an essential component of the scientific enterprise, much of the current understanding of biological events have failed to show causative links. Unfortunately, the funding community has a tendency to support research that is more likely to prove an outcome rather than adding to a broader body of evidence. “These kinds of grants are not attractive to some funders – it takes a foundation that is willing to support less popular science to get it done,” she says.  


Despite a challenging funding environment, Dr. Huang and her team are motivated by the potential benefits of their work. It’s not just about publishing papers or adding to the academic conversation, it’s about providing real-world solutions to problems that have puzzled scientists for decades. Their work on glycans could one day lead to a set of diagnostic tools that clinicians can use to detect early signs of disease, changing the prognosis for countless patients. 

Launching a career in an area as pioneering as glycobiology presents both challenges and opportunities.  

“You’re putting your neck on the line for a research area that is not as mature as others," Dr. Huang acknowledges. This means that every discovery or publication is not just a contribution to the field but also a testament to the rigor and dedication of the researcher behind it. Despite the risk, Dr. Huang sees this as a chance to make a real difference in a field ripe for discovery.  


To achieve this, Dr. Huang has created an environment where her lab members not only enjoy their work but can thrive under her mentorship, benefiting from significant face time and personal investment in their scientific and personal growth. As the scientific community continues to recognize the importance of diverse perspectives and inclusive research environments, Dr. Huang’s lab is not just a place of inquiry but a laboratory where the next generation of scientists is molded, ready to take on new challenges to serve more people.  

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