Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal

When it comes to medical research, few scientists can compete with the legacy of Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal. Her groundbreaking work on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), an incurable virus affecting more than 1.2 million Americans today, changed our understanding of AIDS forever.

Yee Ching Wong was born in August 1947 in China, but grew up in Hong Kong. An academically-gifted child, her teachers pushed her to study science. At their suggestion, Yee Ching’s parents gave their child an English name: Flossie.

When she was eighteen, Wong-Staal moved to the United States for school. She finished her bachelor’s degree in Bacteriology from the University of California–Los Angeles in 1968. In 1972, she completed her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. She then accepted a postdoctoral position at University of California-San Diego.

Wong-Staal began working at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland in 1973, researching retroviruses and the cause of AIDS. Finally, in 1983 Wong-Staal’s team made a breakthrough: the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus. Wong-Staal’s team discovered HIV at the same time as a French team, and she is now credited as co-discoverer.

In 1985, Wong-Staal became the first person to clone HIV and genetically map the virus, a critical step in developing blood tests for the virus. She was the first to show that HIV depleted T-cells; a key piece of evidence that the virus causes AIDS.

In 1990, Wong-Staal returned to UC–San Diego to become the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research. Four years later, she became the Chair of the Center for AIDS Research. She retired from the university in 2002 and co-founded a new biopharmaceutical company, Immusol, where she worked as Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer.

In 2007, Immusol changed gears to focus on therapy for Hepatitis C, rebranding itself as iTherX Pharmaceuticals Inc. She continues to work as Chief Scientific Officer of the company today.

Wong-Staal received many awards and honors for her groundbreaking work.

In 1994, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies and the Convocation of Academia Sinica in Taiwan. She won the Outstanding Scientific Award from the Chinese Medical and Health Association in 1987. She was named the top woman scientist of the 1980’s by the Institute for Scientific Information, and her work from that decade received more citations than any other woman scientist’s. In 2007, she was ranked 32nd on the Daily Telegraph’s “Top 100 Living Geniuses.”

In celebration of her successful career, The Wonder Woman Project made an enamel pin with her image; half of the proceeds for the pin go to the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins (lahn7d@mail.umkc.edu) for more information.

mew9bc@mail.umkc.edu

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