STEM History:

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal


Chinese American Virologist and Molecular Biologist 

Birth/Death Dates

August 27, 1946 – July 8, 2020


Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, which was a significant step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. From 1990 to 2002, she held the Florence Riford Chair in AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Additionally, she was co-founder and, after retiring from UCSD, chief scientific officer of Immusol, which was renamed iTherX Pharmaceuticals in 2007 when it transitioned to a drug development company focused on hepatitis C. 

Educational Background

  • B.S. in bacteriology, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Ph. D. in molecular biology, University of California, Los Angeles,1972
  • Postdoctoral work, University of California, San Diego

Struggles this Innovator Overcame

In 1952, Wong-Staal and her family were among the many Chinese citizens who fled to Hong Kong after the Communist revolution in the late 1940s.

Problems this Innovator Solved

When acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) became a global epidemic in the early 1980s, scientists didn’t know how it was transmitted. Only after Wong-Staal first cloned the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1985 were researchers able to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS.

How this inventor changed the world (or at least their corner of it)

Dr. Wong-Staal’s work allowed others to determine the function of HIV’s genes and understand how it evades the immune system’s natural defensive response. She had been studying retroviruses as part of her work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and her discovery led to the organization’s later development of antibody tests. Dr. Wong-Staal was the most cited female scientist of the 1980s, with almost 7,800 citations. 

In 1994 Dr. Wong-Staal was named chairman of UCSD’s newly created Center for AIDS Research. That same year, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies and Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.

Lasting changes from this inventor’s work or how they trailblazed

Dr. Wong-Staal’s contributions in the field of HIV/AIDS helped to determine that using a “drug cocktail,” or several drugs at the same time, is a key to managing HIV.

Her research in HIV/AIDS was highly significant in the field of virology and immunology, which helped lay the groundwork for understanding infectious diseases such as COVID-19.