Flossie Wong-Staal, a molecular biologist, is one of the world’s authorities on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). She was born on August 27, 1947 in communist China. Her name originally was Yee Ching Wong. Her family fled to Hong Kong in1952.
In Hong Kong, Wong-Staal attended an all girls Catholic school. She excelled academically and her teachers pushed her in the direction of science. Despite the fact that no women in her family had ever worked outside the home or studied science, her parents encouraged her academic pursuits. She herself was not initially interested in science, but as she studied it more came to love it. The teachers at her school also encouraged Wont-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 chose biology to be her major. She graduated three years later, magna cum laude and with a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology. She earned a pH.D. in molecular biology in 1972 from UCLA.
After earning her degrees at UCLA, Wong-Staal began her postgraduate work at the University of California at San Diego. While in San Diego, she married and added the Staal to her last name. Eventually, they divorced.
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 U.S. 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 UC 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.
For her contributions to science, the Institute for Scientific Information named Wong-Staal the top woman scientist of the 1980s.