Born in China in 1947, Flossie Wong-Staal excelled in school from an early age and her teachers persuaded her to study in the U.S. for college. They also encouraged her father to change her given name, Yee Ching, to something that would make it easier for her to transition to a life in the U.S. and he chose her new name from a typhoon that had recently struck the area.
While she was encouraged to study science, Wong-Staal said she was not initially interested in it but grew to love it over time. She came to America to study at the University of California at Los Angeles when she turned 18, earning a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology. In 1972 she completed her PhD in molecular biology, also from UCLA. She was the first woman in her family to go to college, and was supported by her parents in her educational efforts.
She then started her post-doctoral research at UC San Diego, and in 1974 she moved to the National Cancer Institute where she began her work on retroviruses. In 1983, this research led Wong-Staal and a team of scientists at NCI to discover that the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, was the cause of AIDS at the same time as a French scientist had the same findings.
Wong-Staal continued this line of research, and in 1985 she was the first scientist to clone the virus, and contributed to genetically mapping it. This work was the basis to allow for the creation of blood tests for HIV. She also did research that helped contribute to new treatments for HIV/AIDS patients before returning to UCSD in 1990 shortly after having been named the top woman scientist of the 1980’s by the Institute for Scientific Information.
In 1994, she became the chairman of the school’s Center for AIDS Research and focused her research on gene therapy. She retired from the school in 2002, but holds the title professor emerita.
In 1992, Wong-Staal co-founded a biopharmaceutical firm called Immusol, and she became their chief scientific officer in 2002. That year, she was named one of the fifty most extraordinary women scientists by Discover magazine and in 2007 the Daily Telegraph listed her as #32 on their ranking of Top 100 Living Geniuses. In 2014, she stated that she was a little surprised by the recognition, because she was “just having fun, doing what I was interested in” and pursuing the “thrill of discovery.”
Written by Mary Ratliff