Sep 30

Yee Ching Wong was born in China’s Guangdong province in 1946. Forced to flee to Hong Kong with her family after the communist revolution in China, the young girl began attending a Catholic school run by American nuns where it was the custom to choose a Western-style name for school.

Desiring to be different, Yee Ching asked her father for ideas. Suggesting a list of typhoons that had hit Southeast Asia, the perfect name appeared: Flossie.

With an aptitude for science, Flossie Wong moved to California in the mid 1960s, earning a PhD in molecular biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her next stop was the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, to research retroviruses that might cause disease in humans. It was not “sexy” work; in fact, many of Wong-Staal’s colleagues thought it was a dead-end project. Little did they know that the now married Wong-Staal, her mentor, and colleagues were conducting ground-breaking research on what was the deadliest virus of the 1980s, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, better known as HIV. (HIV is the cause of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.)

Looking back, 1980-1990 was a very scary time. The HIV-AIDS pandemic was raging. Nearly 775,000 were reported to have AIDS in the United States. More than half of those diagnosed, some 448,060, died from AIDS-related complications.

Wong-Staal’s research reached a fever pitch. She and her team helped decode the genetic blueprint for HIV, which opened the door for tests and treatment. She also explored the subtle ways the virus could invade the body and mutate.

Esteemed colleagues recognized her contributions. Said Joseph Sodroski, a Harvard University microbiologist, “She made fundamental contributions to the molecular biology of human retroviruses that enabled the entire field to move forward much more rapidly.” Ever humble, Wong-Staal countered with this: “No matter how much progress was made it was not enough, or not fast enough.”

Yee Ching, the little girl who escaped communism to become the celebrated U.S. virologist Flossie Wong-Staal succumbed to pneumonia on July 8, 2020, in San Diego. She left behind her husband, two daughters and a perfect storm of research that helped solve one of the deadliest viruses of the time. Learn more about this Dearly Departed here>

Dearly Departed profiles are the musings of SC Innovates’ Director and SmartState Endowed Chair Laura B. Cardinal. Dr. Cardinal teaches a series of courses in Strategic Management of Technology + Innovation, wherein each course adds to the unique fusion of innovation, business strategy, science, and technology. Her courses are offered through the UofSC Darla Moore School of Business Professional MBA Program.

Laura B. Cardinal, PhD