7 Asian Americans whose discoveries changed the world

Published 7:00 pm Monday, April 22, 2024

7 Asian Americans whose discoveries changed the world

Technology has rapidly advanced the speed of invention, getting cutting-edge products and treatments into peoples’ hands faster. But while we consumers passively enjoy technological updates to make our lives frictionless, the many hands who touch those new innovations—the researchers, discoverers, engineers, and inventors—often go unnoticed. Ahead of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, we’re celebrating Asian Americans whose contributions to groundbreaking medical and technological advancements have fundamentally changed how we live and work.

Stacker has compiled a list of seven scientists and engineers whose contributions are so profound, that society may have even forgotten the problems it once had to deal with before their discoveries and inventions. Using interviews and research from industry science publications, Stacker highlighted how their work and discoveries paved the way for society to develop new treatments in medicine and technology.

Though we have made an effort to recognize a wide range of scientists in different fields, the people acknowledged in this story are simply the tip of the iceberg in terms of the many underrepresented people who have helped create some of the most profound inventions over the course of many years of history. These scientists often face issues of visibility. According to a study of demographic data in biology textbooks published in 2020, about 3% of scientists featured were Asian and 0% were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. More than 9 in 10 scientists highlighted in those seven biology books were white. For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders especially, the issues can be systemic or financial. Per the National Science Foundation, in 2021, about 66.13% of employed scientists and engineers are white, while Asians represented 14.01% and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders 0.24%, respectively.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and math could still progress regarding inclusivity and leveraging different backgrounds and experiences for the benefit of humankind. Nevertheless, these are but a few people who continue to persist, giving their valuable time and creativity to fields that have drastically improved human health and well-being.

Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal, a Chinese American scientist, was born in China in 1946. Wong-Staal’s family fled to Hong Kong during the Chinese Civil War between communists and nationalists and, when she was 18, she studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, eventually receiving her doctorate in molecular biology.

In the 1980s, as AIDS ravaged the U.S., Wong-Staal was the first person to clone HIV and discover how exactly its genes functioned within the human body. Her work allowed scientists to determine HIV was indeed the cause of AIDS. That decade, she was the most-cited woman scientist for her work in detailing the molecular biology for the different variations of HIV, which led doctors to create “drug cocktails” to manage AIDS in different patients. She also started the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California, San Diego.

Katherine Luzuriaga

Katherine Luzuriaga, a Philippines-born pediatric medicine scientist, was part of a three-person team that managed to create a functional cure for HIV in a newborn baby. The baby, at the age of 2, no longer needed to take HIV medications and did not exhibit any signs of HIV.

In 2013, Luzuriaga was named one of Time magazine’s annual 100 most influential people in the world for her work. The procedure Luzuriaga and her team conducted paved the way for pediatricians and scientists to learn how to manage and treat HIV in infants by giving them anti-HIV drugs hours after birth.

In 2021, Luzuriaga was considered for the top position at The Food and Drug Administration.

Barry Paw

When Barry Paw was 7 years old, his family fled Myanmar (also called Burma) during a period of civil unrest with one suitcase and $30 per person. Paw grew up in California and earned his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he and a team of scientists detailed the molecular basis of Tay-Sachs disease.

Paw was also instrumental in discovering a new gene that assists hemoglobin production. Using zebrafish in an experiment, Paw and his team discovered the cell mutations that cause anemia. His work paved the way for scientists to understand and treat blood disorders.

Lujendra Ojha

Lujendra Ojha, a Nepalese American research scientist, led a research team at Georgia Institute of Technology that found the strongest evidence at the time of water on Mars: flowing liquid salt water on the planet.

But groundbreaking scientific discoveries were his Plan B. Before he was a graduate student and made the discovery in 2015, Ojha was a guitarist in a death metal rock band. Ojha and his family moved from Nepal to Arizona when he was a teenager, and the influence of his artistic past is still shown in his science works today. Ojha experimented with making movielike trailers to accompany his scientific papers.

Now, Ojha is an assistant professor at Rutgers University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Peter Tsai

In 1995, Taiwanese American inventor Peter Tsai patented technology that used positive and negative charges to trap dust and bacteria in a filter before it entered the mouth.

Today, we call that the N95 mask.

Tsai’s filtering technology has recently become more crucial than ever. As wildfires spread across California and the coronavirus whipped around the globe, every country stocked up on N95 masks to safely perform essential tasks amid polluted air and harmful bacteria.

Despite facing xenophobia against Asian Americans, Tsai came out of retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic to work in the public health sector, advising everyone to mask up.

Min Chueh Chang

Min Chueh Chang (often listed as M. C. Chang in scientific literature) co-developed the first birth control pill. The discovery and invention of “the pill” not only led the way for scientists to better understand pregnancy and reproduction, but it also gave way to the sexual liberation movement in the U.S. and beyond. Women didn’t have to worry as much as they once did about becoming pregnant, allowing them to pursue longer-term careers and family planning. Chang’s research also became the foundation on which in vitro fertilization was made possible in humans.

Sumita Mitra

Sumitra Mitra, an Indian American inventor and chemist, devised a new type of dental filling that used nanoparticles. What was then an up-and-coming technology, nanoparticles would allow dentists to make fillings look smoother and more teethlike than filling material available on the market. Most importantly, the filling stood up against all the stress teeth undertook from biting and chewing. Mitra’s invention is the first use case of nanoparticles in dental filling material. The chemist was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2018.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close.