“You need to have a passion for making discoveries because this is the most rewarding aspect of a scientific career. Eureka moments are few and far between. It’s important to go into a research lab, both to get some experience with the scientific process and see the kind of work that’s required. It’s also helpful to expose yourself to the passion and enthusiasm of outstanding scientists. In this way, you can get a glimpse of the dedication that science requires and also the satisfaction it can provide.”
Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal, a molecular biologist and virologist, is one of the world’s authorities on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the first scientist to clone and to genetically map the virus.
Born in China, Dr. Wong-Staal grew up in Hong Kong where she and her family fled in 1952 to escape communist Chinese rule. In Hong Kong, she attended an all-girls Catholic school where she excelled academically and was motivated by teachers toward science.
After immigrating to the United States in 1965, Dr. Wong-Staal earned her B.A. degree in bacteriology and Ph.D. in molecular biology from UCLA. In 1972, she began postdoctoral research at UCSD until 1974 when she left to work with Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute. At the institute, Dr. Wong-Staal began her examination of retroviruses, and it was during this time of research that she cloned the HIV virus.
In 1990, the Institute for Scientific Information recognized Dr. Wong-Staal as the top woman scientist of the previous decade. That same year, she returned to UCSD to continue her AIDS research. Four years later, the university created a new Center for AIDS Research with Dr. Wong-Staal as its chairman.
In 2002, Dr. Wong-Staal retired from UCSD and now holds the title of Professor Emerita. In addition, she is co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of iTherX where she researches treatments for Hepatitis C.
Although Dr. Wong-Staal is considered one of the world's top experts in viruses and a codiscoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus(HIV) that causes AIDS, her interest in science did not come naturally.
The young Wong had excellent marks, but initially had no plans of becoming a scientist. Against her expectations, she gradually became enamored with science. Another significant result of attending the private school was the changing of her name. The school encouraged Wong to adopt an English name. Her father, who did not speak English, chose the name Flossie from newspaper accounts of Typhoon Flossie, which had struck Hong Kong the previous week.
Even though none of Wong's female relatives had ever gone to college or university, her family enthusiastically supported her education and in 1965, she went to the United States to study at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1968, she graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in bacteriology, also obtaining a doctorate in molecular biology in 1972.
In 1990, Dr. Wong-Staal returned to UCSD to continue her AIDS research. There, she works to find both vaccines against HIV and a cure for AIDS, using the new technology of gene therapy.