Flossie Wong-Staal is a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist. She was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, a significant step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS.
She was born on August 27, 1947, in China. Her name was originally Yee Ching Wong. Her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 after the Communist revolution in the late 1940s. In Hong Kong, Wong-Staal attended an all-girls Catholic school. She excelled academically, and her teachers pushed her in the direction of science. Even though no women in her family had ever worked outside the home or studied science, her parents encouraged her academic pursuits. She was not initially interested in science but came to love it.
The teachers at her school also encouraged Wong-Staal’s family to change her name to something English. Her father chose Flossie after a typhoon that struck the area the previous week.
In 1965, at the age of eighteen, Wong-Staal went to the United States to attend the University of California, Los Angeles. There she pursued a B.S. in bacteriology which she earned – cum laude – in three years. Once she had earned her bachelor’s degree, she would go on to earn a Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA in 1972. She did her postdoc work at the University of California, San Diego, where she would continue to research.
In 1973, Wong-Staal moved to Bethesda, Maryland to work at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Here she studied retroviruses with Robert Gallo, a pioneer in the study of AIDS. The two were searching for the cause of AIDS, which had recently entered the population in the United States. In 1983, simultaneously with Luc Montagnier in France, Wong-Staal and her colleagues discovered HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Wong-Staal was the first researcher to clone HIV, which she did in 1985 – this led to the first genetic map of the virus, which aided in the development of blood tests for HIV.
Wong-Staal returned to U.C. San Diego in 1990. She continued her AIDS research at the newly opened Center for AIDS Research. She soon became the chairman of the center. In 2002, she became the vice president and chief scientific officer for Genomics at the company, Immusol. Recognizing the need for improved drugs for hepatitis C (HCV), she transitioned Immusol to an HCV therapeutics focus. She renamed it iTherX Pharmaceuticals to reflect this. That same year, Discover named Wong-Staal one of the fifty most extraordinary women scientists. Wong-Staal remains as a Research Professor of Medicine at UCSD.
In 2007, The Daily Telegraph heralded Dr. Wong-Staal as #32 of the “Top 100 Living Geniuses.”
For her contributions to science, the Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal the top female scientist of the 1980s.