One Asian American Woman in STEM Everyone Should Know

Pictured: Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, National Women’s Hall of Fame 2019

Why does representation matter?

This question may seem like it begs obvious answers, but its continued circulation throughout the American public indicates otherwise. The repetitive nature of the question reveals that there has not been a public consensus among potential answers, granted that this is an impossible feat given the varying perspectives and political climate of the United States. Even the very premise of the question of whether representation matters is debated.

Representation matters. To name a few “obvious answers,” representation in politics matters because it allows for laws and policies to be changed and reflect the experiences of marginalized groups. In the media, accurate representation of marginalized groups matters because it combats existing stereotypes and disrupts the harmful cycle of misrepresenting people. In academia, representation allows children of marginalized groups to gain support and encouragement for achieving their goals. Representation expands the sense of what is possible for both, individuals and minority groups. One woman in scientific history who has expanded the sense of what is possible for women, Asian Americans, and the course of humanity is Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal. This article illustrates how she is a prime figure of representation in STEM in the United States.

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was a Chinese American virologist, a scientist who studied viruses and the diseases caused by such viruses. Specifically, she was a leading figure in HIV research at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Her life’s work was dedicated to the genetic structure and regulatory mechanisms of HIV and she proved that HIV caused AIDS.

Wong-Staal was born in Guangzhou, China in 1946. When she was 18 years old, she not only changed her name to “Flossie,” commemorating a typhoon that hit southern China, but also immigrated to the United States to begin her studies. She was a leader and innovator from the start; Wong-Staal was the first woman in her family to graduate from college. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1968. She then continued at UCLA to receive her Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1972. Following her degrees, she was offered a postdoctoral position at the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology with Robert C. Gallo, at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her work up until this point in her life equipped her with the necessary knowledge and molecular virology skills that she would need at her position in AIDS research at the University of California, San Diego. Eventually, she left the NIH and continued to become the director of the UCSD Center for AIDS Research, where her life’s work would transform into her legacy that will still impact the 21st century.

When Wong-Staal arrived at the UCSD Center for AIDS Research, her first achievement was quickly dissecting and decoding the HIV genome organization and its replicating structure. She then went on to discover molecular evidence of variations in HIV within infected individuals. From these findings, she came to the groundbreaking realization that HIV is constantly mutating in response to immune pressures. This realization made headway in understanding how to clone the HIV molecular structure and therefore, create effective treatments including antiviral therapy. While a cure is yet to be found, this was monumental in managing and treating AIDS – leading to longer life expectancies. Continuing her work as an HIV trailblazer, Wong-Staal also created the necessary framework and development for the second-generation HIV blood test. This test detected the viral genome instead of antibodies in an infected individual. Her work not only saved lives but also instilled inspiration in other scientists who would continue her life’s work in HIV, AIDS, and virology and disease research.

Wong-Staal gained respect for her commitment to her work. Not only was Wong-Staal an innovator in the progress of modern medicine and science, but she was paving the way for women and Asian Americans. There were little to no women or Asian Americans working in her field of medicine or the American public sphere, in general. She was one of the first Asian American women to make a mark in STEM and established and inspired a path for others to follow.

Suppose Wong-Staal’s groundbreaking legacy and commitment to treating HIV and AIDS is not enough of a reward in itself. In that case, she received the Excellence 2000 Award from the United States Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce, and an Asian Heritage Award in 2014. In addition, she was also a member of Academica Sinica of Taiwan and was elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine in the National Academy of Sciences and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019. Wong-Staal died soon after at age 73. Her work lives on in 2020 as a model for understanding the COVID-19 virus and disease. In addition, Wong-Staal’s biopharmaceutical company that she cofounded, iTherX Pharmaceuticals is still actively pursuing treatments for Hepatitis C. Wong-Staal left a legacy in a white, male-dominated world that has changed the course of humanity.

“It adds to the joy of discovery to know that your work may make a difference in people’s lives.”

– Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal

Wong-Staal not only was an influential researcher but also an influential figure of representation in STEM. Her work and achievements inspired other scientists, but more importantly, let Asian American children know that opportunities are limitless. They too, can achieve something great as an individual who is part of a marginalized group. In Wong-Staal’s case, representation is important because it inspires and encourages children of marginalized groups, such as Asian Americans. In addition, representation is important for humanity’s survival. Without Wong-Staal, lives would have been lost and the discoveries she made likely, would have taken longer. The next groundbreaking innovator for an epidemic could be an individual who is overlooked and cast away based on marginalization and exclusion. The next Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal could be another Asian American child who is about to save humanity if they are given the opportunity.

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