Asian & Pacific Islander Spotlight: Saluting Scientists
In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, we wish to celebrate a few notable scientists of Asian and Pacific Islander descent from all around the world
Pioneering AIDS scientist
Taiwanese-American David Da-i Ho, MD was a young internist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1981 when he came in contact with otherwise healthy patients afflicted with an unusual pattern of symptoms typically seen in the immune-compromised population. Like a handful of other clinicians around the US, Ho was looking at the first known cases of HIV/AIDS, an outbreak that would quickly grow into one of the worst pandemics in human history. Dr. Ho, who had graduated with honors from Cal-Tech, and received a medical degree from Harvard, suddenly knew what his life’s work would be and set out to better understand both the virology and pathogenesis of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Under his leadership at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, his lab figured out how HIV replicated in humans and developed the theory that if you treated AIDS patients with a steady cocktail of antiviral drugs—what became known as highly active antiretroviral therapy or HAART—you could bring down the level of virus in a patient’s blood to undetectable levels. This approach changed the dynamic of the pandemic almost overnight and turned what was once a near death sentence into a chronic but manageable condition with daily doses of oral drugs. In 1996, Time magazine chose Dr. Ho as its “Man of the Year,” for “giving hope to millions in the daunting fight against AIDS.” He has remained focused on finding a cure or vaccine for AIDS, and last year also turned his attention to a different pandemic virus, SARS-CoV-2. You can learn more about Dr. Ho here and here.
First Asian Indian Woman in Space
As a child growing up in India, Kalpana Chawla, PhD was fascinated with airplanes. Born in the tiny village of Karnal, north of New Delhi, Dr. Chawla—nicknamed Montoo—was determined to fly, and fly she did, on two NASA Space Shuttle missions, the second one, unfortunately, ending in tragedy. Dr. Chawla was one of seven crew members who died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 after it crashed while re-entering following a 14-day scientific mission. Dr. Chawla’s first mission aboard Columbia, in 1997, encountered unexpected challenges when the robotic arm she was operating to deploy a 3,000-pound satellite malfunctioned, necessitating a spacewalk by two other astronauts to capture it. The work she and her six crew members carried out on the 2003 Shuttle mission was significant; more than 80 experiments were completed including a camera instrument studying the impact of dust storms on climate and two instruments built to measure levels of ozone at different altitudes. Much of the data from these experiments were transmitted to NASA during the mission, enabling their shuttle experiments to outlive them. Dr. Chawla’s academic pursuits began in 1976 when, over the objections of her father, she left home to attend the Punjab Engineering College in India. Six years later, she headed to the University of Texas in Arlington, where she studied aeronautical engineering and also met her future husband, flight instructor Jean-Pierre Harrison She earned a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. Throughout her career, Dr. Chawla never forgot her roots. In space, along with her science projects, she carried mementos from her elementary school in Karnal, and 20 CDs from Indian musicians. You can find more about Dr. Chawla here.
A Nobel Prize for Trapping Atoms
All matter is made up of atoms and molecules that are constantly moving. But in a vacuum, and under the right conditions, free atoms can be slowed down to speeds of less than one mile an hour, allowing a close examination of their nature and properties. Physicist Steven Chu, PhD, earned a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for developing such a system while he was at the former Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, NJ. Working with colleagues at Bell Labs, Chu focused a battery of very bright laser beams to achieve cooling and slowing of atoms in 1985. Magnet traps were then added to give the atoms more stability. The Nobel Committee noted that Dr. Chu’s research greatly increased scientific understanding of the relationship between radiation and matter and opened the door to the design of more precise atomic clocks. Later Dr. Chu turned his attention to addressing one of the existential threats of our time, climate change. Dr. Chu led President Obama’s Department of Energy for four years, overseeing an ambitious agenda to invest in clean energy and reduce US dependence on foreign oil. Prior to that, he directed the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where he led the lab in pursuit of alternative and renewable energy technologies. Dr. Chu comes from a family of scientists. His parents, immigrants from China, are scientists as are his brother and cousins. Dr. Chu said he considered himself the black sheep of the family, in part because his grades, unlike his brothers, were not good enough for the Ivy Leagues. In the end, it was Dr. Chu who earned the fame. You can learn more about Dr. Chu here.
When she was a little girl in the 1920s, Isabella Abbott, PhD, used to venture out with her mother to learn about edible Hawaiian seaweeds and the value and diversity of native plants. These inspirational lessons fed a lifelong curiosity in ethnobotany, and a research career studying algae that spanned more than five decades. Today, Dr. Abbott is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on Pacific algae, authored eight books and discovered 200 species of algae. Dr. Abbott, christened Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona, was born on Maui in 1919. Her mother was native Hawaiian and her father from China. By the age of 31 she had a PhD in botany from the University of California at Berkeley and became the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a doctoral degree in the field of science. She married zoologist Donald Putnam Abbott, a fellow UC-Berkeley and University of Hawaii grad, and the couple moved to Pacific Grove, California where her husband got a job with Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. Women were rarely considered for academic posts then, so Dr. Abbott spent her time studying California algae and adapted recipes to use the local bull kelp in cakes and pickles. She eventually did join the Stanford faculty—the first woman named to the biological sciences department—and in 1972 was promoted to a full professor. Both she and her husband retired in 1982 and returned to Hawaii, where Dr. Abbott began another career as ethnobotanist, studying the interaction between plants and humans for the University of Hawaii. You can learn more about Dr. Abbott here.