ALD22: Professor Flossie Wong-Staal, Virologist and Molecular Biologist

Flossie Wong-Staal

Professor Flossie Wong-Staal

Professor Flossie Wong-Staal, née Wong Yee Ching, 黄以静, was a virologist and molecular biologist who was the first to molecularly clone Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and created a map of its genes, which was crucial to proving that HIV causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1946, she and her family fled to Hong Kong after the Communist Revolution during the late 1940s. When she was 18. Wong-Staal moved to California to study bacteriology at the University of California, Los Angeles, then moved to San Diego for her postdoctoral research before moving to the National Cancer Institute in Maryland in 1973, where she refocused her research on retroviruses.

She discovered that human T-lymphotropic virus, HTLV-1 was the cause of T cell leukaemia, proving that retroviruses can cause human disease. Her work showed that the virus affected human DNA, activating cancer-causing genes called oncogenes.

She went on to work on a new disease that was very similar to HTLV-1, and in 1975, she successfully cloned HIV. She mapped the virus’s genome which both revealed how genetically diverse HIV is, but also allowed the development of blood tests based on detection of the viral genome rather than virus antibodies. She became a world leader in HIV research, studying its genetic structure, replication strategies and regulatory mechanisms.

She published over 400 papers on human retroviruses and AIDSand was the most-cited female scientist of the 1980s. In 1990, the Institute for Scientific Information named her as the top woman scientist of the 1980s.

In 1990, she founded the Centre for AIDS Research at UCSD. Her research focused on gene therapy and on HIV-1’s relationship to Kaposi’s sarcoma, which is a common ailment for people with AIDS.

Wong-Staal became professor emerita upon retirement from UCSD in 2002, and cofounded Immusol (later iTherX Pharmaceuticals), a biopharmaceutical company, becoming its chief scientific officer. She worked there on improving drugs for hepatitis C.

She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016, and Discover named her one of the 50 “most extraordinary women scientists” in 2002.

Wong-Staal died on 8 July 2020, aged 73.

Further Reading

ALD22: Nicola Chisholm, Biochemist

Nicola Chisholm

This post was contributed by Chloe Rodgers and is an extract from her Highland Women in STEM project. 

Nicola Chisholm

Nicola Chisholm began her scientific career as a sample administrator at Scottish Water. She then became a Laboratories Team Leader and eventually worked as a scientist there. Her work involved carrying out analytical methods within the cryptosporidium and microbiology departments, determining the qualitative and quantitative taste and odour in raw and potable waters.

She thinks it is important that people realise analytical scientists are required within the water industry, as the majority are unaware of the daily quality control testing to ensure water is safe to drink. Chisholm now works as a scientist at Merck Group.

When asked what could be changed to encourage more girls into STEM, she said:

“Growing up your stereotypical scientist was often a ‘geeky’ man working alone. It’s important that we break this stereotype. It’s necessary that from a young age schools focus on bringing science into the classroom and that society makes a conscious effort to portray female scientists in textbooks, online, on television, wherever! Motivate young girls with female scientists who have accomplished great things so they then gain the curiosity and passion to pursue a career in science. We also need to give girls the knowledge on what’s available work wise in the scientific field and how broad and diverse science can be. There’s industries I continue to learn about that require scientists! So never limit a young girl’s freedom and knowledge and never underestimate them.”

You can follow her work on LinkedIn.

What do you love about your job/course?
I love that my job is a service to public health. When I tell people about my work they are often amazed as they never realised analytical scientists are required and exist in the water industry. Most people don’t know about the essential quality control testing that is ongoing every day to enable safe drinking water. It’s a rewarding feeling knowing you’re doing something to support society.

What do you think could be changed to better encourage more girls into your line of work/a STEM career?
Growing up your stereotypical scientist was often a ‘geeky’ man working alone. It’s important that we break this stereotype. It’s necessary that from a young age schools focus on bringing science into the classroom and that society makes a conscious effort to portray female scientists in textbooks, online, on television, wherever! Motivate young girls with female scientists who have accomplished great things so they then gain the curiosity and passion to pursue a career in science. We also need to give girls the knowledge on what’s available work wise in the scientific field and how broad and diverse science can be. There’s industries I continue to learn about that require scientists! So never limit a young girl’s freedom and knowledge and never underestimate them.

What do you like about the location of your job/course?
Inverness is a fast growing city. New opportunities continue to come here and I hope more scientific industries consider Inverness as the ideal location to base themselves.

Since interviewing, Chisholm has become a senior scientist in a lab in Glasgow.

ALD22 Books: Reaching for the Moon, Katherine Johnson

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson, Katherine Johnson

As a young girl, Katherine Johnson showed an exceptional aptitude for math. In school she quickly skipped ahead several grades and was soon studying complex equations with the support of a professor who saw great promise in her. But ability and opportunity did not always go hand in hand. As an African American and a girl growing up in an era of brutal racism and sexism, Johnson faced daily challenges. Still, she lived her life with her father’s words in mind: “You are no better than anyone else, and nobody else is better than you.”

In the early 1950s, Johnson was thrilled to join the organisation that would become NASA. She worked on many of NASA’s biggest projects including the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first men on the moon. Johnson’s story was made famous in the bestselling book and Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. In Reaching for the Moon she tells her own story for the first time, in a lively autobiography that will inspire young readers everywhere.

Order the book on Bookshop.org.uk here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Mathematician and computer scientist Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a farmer and janitor. From a young age, Johnson counted everything and could easily solve mathematical equations. She attended West Virginia State High School and graduated from high school at age fourteen. Johnson received her BS degree in French and Mathematics in 1937 from West Virginia State University. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to enrol in the mathematics program at West Virginia University.

After college, Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1953, she joined Langley Research Center as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), where she put her mathematics skills to work. She calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Even after NASA began using electronic computers, John Glenn requested that she personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7 – the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. She continued to work at NASA until 1986, combining her mathematic talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations proved critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program.

Johnson, who co-authored twenty-six scientific papers, was the recipient of NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award and NASA’s Apollo Group Achievement Award. On 24 November 2015, she received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack H. Obama. She died in 2020, aged 101.

ALD22: Dr Claudia J Alexander, Geophysicist and Planetary Scientist

Claudia J Alexander

Dr Claudia J Alexander

Dr Claudia J Alexander was a Canadian-American geophysicist and planetary scientist who worked for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After getting her PhD in atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, Alexander began working at the USGS studying plate tectonics, then at the Ames Research Center studying Jupiter’s moons. In 1986, she began working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory working first as a science coordinator for the plasma instrument on the Galileo spacecraft, before becoming its last mission project manager and overseeing its final plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 2003.

It was during her tenure that Galileo discovered Ganymede’s ionosphere, forcing Alexander to completely rethink her models that showed Ganymede was “frozen solid”. She said of the discovery, “It was an exciting moment to experience something that changed my whole way of thinking. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong before!”

From 2000 until her death, Alexander was in charge of the USA’s contribution to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to study and land on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. She was responsible for the instrumentation that collected data such as temperature, as well as overseeing the spacecraft’s tracking and navigation support, which was provided by NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Alexander had a wide variety of interests, studying comet formations, magnetosphere, solar wind, and the planet Venus. She was also a science fiction writer and published children’s books about science under the name EL Celeste.

In 1993, Alexander was named woman of the year by the Association for Women Geoscientists, and in 2003 she received the Emerald Honor for Women of Color in Research & Engineering from Career Communications Group.

In 2015, the Rosetta mission’s team named a gate-like feature on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Alexander, calling it the C Alexander Gate. In 2020, The Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society named a prize for mid-career planetary scientists after her.

Further Reading

ALD22 Podcasts: People Behind The Science, Dr Marie McNeely

People Behind The Science, Dr Marie McNeely

People Behind the Science’s mission is to inspire current and future scientists, share the different paths to a successful career in science, educate the general population on what scientists do, and show the human side of science. In each episode, a different scientist will guide us through their journey by sharing their successes, failures, and passions. We are excited to introduce you to these inspiring academic and industry experts from all fields of science to give you a variety of perspectives on the life and path of a scientist.

Recent episodes: 

  • Dr Joshua Pate: Exploring pain science education and pain management in children.
  • Dr Naomi Tague: Scientific simulations in stream and ecosystem synergies.
  • Dr Susan Krumdieck: Dedicating her energy to engineering solutions to fuel our future.
  • Dr Lee Cronin: Chemistry is key: Studying self assembly and the origins of life.
  • Dr Emily Darling: Conducting research to conserve coral reefs.

You can:

Visit their website: peoplebehindthescience.com/podcasts
Follow on Twitter: @PBtScience @PhDMarie