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Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Yee Ching Wong was born in the city of Guangzhou in the People’s Republic of China on August 27, 1947. Her father was a local businessman and her mother a homemaker. In 1952, when Yee was five, the family escaped Communism by fleeing to British Hong Kong, seventy miles to the south.

She was enrolled in a Catholic school there; and was a bright, capable student. Because of her potential, the nuns of the school believed that Yee should have an English name to enhance her opportunities. Her father, who didn’t speak English, turned to the newspaper to select Yee’s new name. It seems that the week before a storm came through Hong Kong that was named Typhoon Flossie. That was it! The young girl’s new name would be Flossie. Later, she said, “I used to be embarrassed by it. Now I’m trying to change the image of the name.”

Flossie was an exceptional student and those around her encouraged her to study science (an option that would not have been available in Communist China). She wasn’t interested but followed their advice any way. The more she studied it, the more she learned to love it. Graduating from high school in 1965, Flossie Wong was sent to the U.S. to further her studies. Her family enthusiastically supported her education. She enrolled at UCLA, majoring in molecular biology. In 1968, she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in bacteriology.

Flossie did postgraduate work at UC San Diego until 1972. She married there; her next new name being Flossie Wong-Staal (a name she kept even after a later divorce). The next year, she moved to the east coast, taking a position with the National Cancer Institute in Maryland. Her work focused on retroviruses - a mysterious group of viruses of which little was known.

By 1980, the AIDS epidemic was first recognized. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute lab were working to isolate the cause of AIDS and the many illnesses that make up the syndrome. Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal worked with the noted researcher Robert Gallo. Together they first identified the HIV virus and its link to AIDS in 1983. Flossie is credited with the first cloning of the HIV virus and the first genetic mapping of it. Her monumental breakthrough allowed the development of diagnostic tests to screen patients and donated blood supplies for the HIV virus.

In 1990, the Institute for Scientific Information named Flossie Wong-Staal as the top woman scientist of the 1980’s, as well as the fourth-ranked scientist in the world under the age of 45. That same year she returned to the University of California at San Diego. Four years later, Flossie was named to direct the new Center for AIDS Research, at UC San Diego, where she and her staff worked to find a vaccine for the HIV virus, and a cure for AIDS, using the techniques of gene therapy. After several years in this position, Flossie left to co-found iTherX Pharmaceuticals, a company focusing on treatments for Hepatitis C. She is its Chief Scientific Officer. She still holds the title of Professor Emeritus at the University of California.

Today she is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost authorities on viruses, and HIV specifically. In 2002, Discover Magazine named Flossie Wong-Staal as one of the fifty most extraordinary women scientists in the world. She was also elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies. Then in 2007, The UK’s Daily Telegraph listed her as #32 on its list of the “Top 100 Living Geniuses.”

Not a bad record for the little Chinese-American girl who didn’t like science.

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