Walter Isaacson’s keynote address to the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s annual dinner on Jan. 15 included an unexpected mention of local genius Feng Zhang. 


Isaacson has written acclaimed biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, men the author admires for their willingness to innovate and push boundaries.

Isaacson also said that another figure he holds in high esteem is Iowa native Robert Noyce, a co-founder of Intel, the microchip manufacturer that revolutionized the computer industry. 


Noyce, he explained, was born in Burlington to a Congregationalist minister who wound up in Grinnell when Noyce graduated from high school. 


A star athlete at Grinnell in the late 1940s, Noyce sang in the choir, played the oboe, acted in plays and was suspended for one semester for stealing a pig from the mayor for a college party. But he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in physics and mathematics and went on to a storybook career in business.


Then, Isaacson told the audience that he wanted to mention one other “local hero,” Zhang, who “is expected to win a Nobel Prize this year” for his work with others to create Crispr, a gene editing tool.

Zhang was born in China but immigrated to Des Moines at age 11 in 1993 with parents who were computer scientists. He spoke no English when he entered Callanan Middle School in 1993, but quickly learned the language and became an outstanding student at Central Campus and Roosevelt High School, graduating in 2000. 


He began doing genetic research at Iowa Methodist Medical Center while still in high school and received an undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2004 and a doctorate from Stanford in 2009.


Zhang’s work in genetics has received several honors, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention in 2017.