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STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Flossie Wong-Staal

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month!  If you’re not sure what that is, the official site is here.  May is almost over, but I’m squeezing this post in just in time!

Today’s STEM role model is a woman who has made tremendous strides in the fight against AIDS.  She was the first to clone the HIV virus and map its genes, and she helped to make the initial connection between HIV and AIDS.

Yee-ching Wong was born in China in 1947, but her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 to escape Communism.   Following a basic science-track education taught by British nuns in Hong Kong, where she chose her English name Flossie, she began her higher education at UCLA in 1965.  She chose to follow on with graduate work in molecular biology.

In 1971 she married Steven Staal, and in 1972 she earned her PhD and was named the Woman Graduate of the Year at UCLA.  In 1973 her husband, a medical doctor, began working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, so Flossie joined him there and got a job at Robert Gallo’s lab in the National Cancer Institute at NIH.

The research Robert Gallo was conducting in that lab focused on viruses that caused cancer in animals, and how those viruses affected cells.  Their work on oncogenes in animals led Flossie to be the first to find oncogenes in humans.  Flossie quickly rose to a leadership position in the lab and flourished, enjoying the research that frequently led to new and exciting discoveries.

In 1983, the NCI lab and the Pasteur Institute in Paris separately isolated and identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  In 1984, Flossie Wong-Staal became the first to clone and map the genes of HIV.  This was key in allowing for development of HIV blood tests.  In 1985, she was divorced but kept her hyphenated name.

In 1990, she accepted a position at UC San Diego to head their new center for AIDS research.  There she pursued multiple avenues to try to combat HIV and AIDS, attempting to find treatments, vaccines, and cures by various methods.  The most promising of these so far is a ribozyme treatment that keeps the virus from reproducing.

A widely respected researcher, Wong-Staal’s publications were once found to be the most-cited by a female researcher in the 1980s.  She was named the top woman researcher of the 1980s by the Institute for Scientific Information, and in 2002 she was named one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine.

In 2002 she left UCSD to become vice president and Chief Science Officer (CSO) for genomics at Immusol, now renamed to iTherX.  She continues to work to defeat deadly viruses,  and is particularly focused on pursuing treatments for Hepatitis C.

If you’d like to know more about this talented and dedicated researched, check out the links in the resources section below.

Resources:

http://www.usasciencefestival.org/schoolprograms/2014-role-models-in-science-engineering/371-flossie.html

http://alumni.ucla.edu/share/alumni-stories/stories/flossie-wong-staal.aspx

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/flossie-wong-staal-wmi/

http://www.biography-center.com/biographies/10406-Wong_Staal_Flossie.html

http://www.library.ca.gov/calhist/calendar10-5.html

http://www2.edc.org/womensequity/women/wong.htm

http://www.scientistafoundation.com/34/post/2013/08/meet-flossie-wong-staal-pioneer-in-hiv-research.html

http://www.fofweb.com/History/MainPrintPage.asp?iPin=AHBio0017&DataType=AmericanHistory&WinType=Free

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Why the STEM Female Role Model Spotlights?

The STEM Female Role Model Spotlight posts really serve several purposes.  First, they are to show that there are, in fact, lots of really good female role models in STEM fields.  I try to keep a good mix of those you have likely heard of and those you probably haven’t, across a spread of fields to include everything from computers to chemistry to carbon-dating, and time periods ranging from the earliest scientists to current day computer wizards.  This is important because studies have shown that one of the biggest things that keeps girls from entering STEM fields is a lack of visible female role models in the field – if they don’t see women, especially successful ones in leadership roles in that field, they tend to think it’s ‘not for women’ and the cycle keeps on repeating itself.  Nothing ever changes.

Second, they give me something to write about on days when I don’t have any other topic in mind.  I have a growing list of women who I think would be good for these posts.   I can pick one from the list who, on any given day, I would like to do a little digging on, learn more about, and write about.  These posts save me from ever having to deal with a bad case of writer’s block!  Since I try to write every day, this is crucial.

Third, I just find making these posts fun and interesting.  I enjoy the research part, and think of it as creating a sort of database I can refer to if my daughter is ever looking for a good role model in a particular field.

I hope you find these women’s stories interesting as well.  I welcome any additions to that list, so please feel free to nominate someone you know of who hasn’t been featured yet!

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