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Asian American scientists in STEM classrooms: increasing inclusion and visibility

Learn about Asian and Pacific Islander American scientists who have helped change the world, and the call for greater inclusion of their work in curriculum and textbooks.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education

Image Credit: Nina Chhita

As we continue to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing role that these communities play in shaping the nation. The annual May celebration recognizes the country’s more than 22 million Asian Americans, and 1.6 million Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander Americans, but the collective celebration can largely be attributed to the dogged efforts of Capitol Hill staffer, Jeanie Jew.

Jew’s great-grandfather, M.Y. Lee, played a key role in American history, helping to build the transcontinental railroad. To unite the eastern and western sections of the railroad, Central Pacific hired roughly 15,000 Chinese laborers who each shoveled 20 pounds of rock over 400 times a day to complete the Summit Tunnel at Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Despite their backbreaking labor, when the two great railroads were united at Promontory Point, Utah, M.Y. Lee and his compatriots were excluded from the historic ceremony commemorating the union of East and West.

When Jew witnessed the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, she identified a lack of recognition for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. She believes that not only should these communities understand their own heritage, but that all Americans should have an awareness of their contributions and histories in the U.S. Signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, the commemorative month honors the arrival of the first known Japanese immigrant to the U.S. on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.

As we strive to acknowledge the contributions of Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders to the fabric of this country, it is important to acknowledge the gaps in visibility that these groups currently experience, particularly in the sciences.

A 2020 study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B analyzed the demographics of scientists featured in seven commonly used biology textbooks in introductory biology classes across the United States.

The study concluded that fewer than 7% of the scientists featured in textbooks were scientists of color, fewer than 3% of scientists featured were Asian, and 0% were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Over 90% of the scientists highlighted across all seven biology textbooks were white, and 86% male.

"Overall, very few scientists of color were highlighted, and projections suggest it could take multiple centuries at current rates before we reach inclusive representation,” note the study’s authors. “We call upon textbook publishers to expand upon the scientists they highlight to reflect the diverse population of learners in biology."

As the United States becomes more diverse, and at times more divided, while facing enormous challenges, how do we move forward together? We must first draw attention to and correct the historical record of those who have been left out of textbooks.

A towering figure in the fight against AIDS, who also helped lay the groundwork for the formulation of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to fight COVID-19, is the late Chinese-American virologist Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal.

Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes, a major step in proving that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Image Credit: National Cancer Institute Visuals Online

In 1993, AIDS was the leading cause of death among people aged 25-44 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With so many lives hanging in the balance, an elite army of medical researchers was working to learn everything they could about this enigmatic disease. One of these researchers was Flossie Wong-Staal.

Before she became a world-renowned molecular biologist and virologist, Wong-Staal’s story began in Guangzhou, China, in 1946. Born Yee Ching Wong and educated at a Roman Catholic girls’ school in Hong Kong, she was encouraged to adopt an English name to further her academic opportunities, noted her husband Jeffrey McKelvy.

This pressure to change her Chinese name and conform speaks to a systematic expectation that Asians who want to be accepted in American society have to remove certain aspects of their identity in order to fit in with the dominant culture.

When she told her father that she did not want to be “another Teresa or Mary,” he suggested Flossie, after the typhoon. “That’s you, you’re a Flossie,” he told her.

Wong-Staal went on to study bacteriology at UCLA, first graduating with honors in 1968, then earning a doctorate in molecular biology in 1972. She joined the National Cancer Institute in 1973 as a researcher in the lab of virologist Dr. Robert Gallo, where she became integral to the lab’s study of retroviruses.

Retroviruses are unique in that they invade cells and insert their genes into the DNA of their hosts, thus changing the genome of that cell. A retrovirus called HTLV-III, isolated from several patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), captured Gallo and Wong-Staal’s attention. As they studied it, they concluded that patients with AIDS developed the disease as a result of the transmission of HTLV-III through contaminated blood.

Gallo and Wong-Staal were not alone in their quest to understand AIDS. French scientist Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute of Paris was simultaneously analyzing the disease, paying particular attention to a retrovirus isolated from patients with AIDS called Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV).

HTLV-III and LAV turned out to be the same retrovirus, and the primary cause of AIDS. In 1986, the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses announced that the virus that causes AIDS will officially be known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Gallo’s team shared the discovery of HIV with Montagnier, but it was Wong-Staal who provided the molecular road map that made it possible. She became the first person to clone HIV, unpacking the virus piece by piece, probing its genes and proteins until she had unlocked its genetic code and understood how it evaded the body’s immune system. This later helped in the development of blood tests to detect the virus. It is because of scientists like Wong-Staal that HIV antibody tests and targeted antiretroviral drugs also emerged on the market. Because of these medical advances, AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence. It is estimated that antiretroviral treatment helps avert 1.2 million deaths per year—without them, global HIV/AIDS deaths would be more than twice as high, according to Our World in Data. And Wong-Staal’s contributions are still making a difference in virology.

“H.I.V. research built a strong foundation for COVID-19 research,” David Ho, a Columbia University virologist who directs the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, told the New York Times. “It’s why things are moving so fast on the vaccine front and the antibody front, as well as the development of drugs.”

Wong-Staal’s research has saved countless lives, but the most thorough profiles of her work can be found in the obituaries. She was a giant in the fight against HIV/AIDS and yet there is no mention of her work in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services timeline that chronicles the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic from the first reported cases in 1981 to the present. When the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded in the fall of 2008, it was only for Montagnier. He shared the 2008 prize with Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who worked with him at the Pasteur Institute on HIV, and Dr. Harald zur Hausen, who discovered the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Although Asian Americans are overrepresented in the STEM workforce, accounting for 17% of college-educated STEM workers, compared with 10% of all college-educated workers, according to Pew Research Center, Asian American scientists and their stories have yet to make it into the hallowed halls of science history.

In fact, nearly half of Americans represented in a recent national study were unable to name a single prominent Asian American, highlighting the lack of Asian American representation in U.S. media.

The most common answer to the national survey question was “don’t know,” followed by Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The study was commissioned by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change to uncover attitudes and perceptions of Asian Americans to examine the root causes of racism and discrimination. The study was conducted amid a rise in anti-Asian violence, with Stop AAPI Hate reporting that hate incidents targeting Asian Americans in the U.S. nearly doubled from 3,795 to 6,603 between 2020 and 2021. On May 20, President Biden signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which addresses the increase of violence against Asian Americans and seeks to make reporting hate crimes more accessible at the local and state levels.

In March, a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, including six Asian women: Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Soon C. Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong A. Yue.

In the wake of these attacks on Asian American women, Elizabeth Kleinrock, an educator who creates curricular content for K–12 students around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, presented her sixth-grade students with a survey.

One of the survey questions was, “I know of and can name at least three Asian Americans, either from history or the present day. (yes/no/maybe)”

Only four out of 52 sixth-grade students could name three or more historical or present day Asian Americans. The survey went on to ask what questions students had about Asian American history, identities or experiences.

One student wrote, “almost everything because I have not been educated on this topic yet, but I hope one day I could be.”

Another wrote, “well, I know nothing, so I guess it would be helpful to know more about everything.”

And another, “I just want to learn more because we don’t learn about it in school.”

A growing number of parents, students, and teachers are calling for the inclusion of Asian American history in public schools. In fact, more than 2,500 residents of New York City have come together to sign an open letter calling for the inclusion of Asian American history in public schools.

“It is critical for all NYC students to see Asian American role models, historical figures, writers, artists, scientists, and contemporary leaders included in the school context, including but not limited to curriculum, classroom walls, library books, lesson slides, and performances,” reads the open letter addressed to New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, and New York City Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter.

Nina Chhita is a scientist, educator, and artist who shares her illustrations of historical and present day figures in science on social media. In 2020, she began to focus primarily on the work of underrepresented scientists who are missing from textbooks. With over 25,000 Instagram followers, Nina is empowered by the responses she has received.

Image Credit: Nina Chhita

“I've mainly connected with teachers, parents, and educators,” Chhita says. “I have received some wonderful messages from teachers who are very passionate about communicating about women in science and math. I find their stories the most motivating because I was in school 10 years ago and these women scientists weren't spoken about.”

Developing pedagogy that is “culturally responsive” and “anti-racist” requires acknowledging existing gaps in the narratives of Wong-Staal’s work. The scientific achievements of many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans were a mystery to me before I specifically sought them out. By featuring scientists who were excluded from the canon of science history, like Wong-Staal, future curriculum can reframe a skewed historical record. Here are some NOVA resources to get you started:

Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with resources from NOVA

The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers | Janet Iwasa
Janet Iwasa is a molecular biologist whose award-winning illustrations and animations bring science to life. Using techniques from Hollywood movies, Iwasa hopes to create more accurate models to support research and better communicate ideas.

The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers | Michio Kaku
Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who has built a career as a best-selling writer on the future—of science, the mind, and the human condition. Kaku says he usually works only with pencil and paper, and that equations dance around in his head. Inspired by Einstein from a young age, he thrills in his pursuit of universal laws of the universe.

Black Hole Hunter: Chung-Pei Ma
Chung-Pei Ma is both a gifted violinist and one of the world’s foremost black hole hunters. She has led teams that discovered several of the largest known black holes from 2011-2016.

Black Hole Hunter: Priyamvda Natarajan
As a child, theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvda Natarajan loved atlases. As an adult, she maps the cosmos. She is a professor in the departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, noted for her work both in mapping dark matter and dark energy, and in models describing the assembly and growth of supermassive black holes.

Making Science Accessible and Engaging | Sciencing Out | PBS
This video series features women science communicators—historical figures paired with contemporary ones. Each video explores the life of the historical character and how her work shaped the field of science communication. Through candid interviews, we see the work that each modern-day scientist is doing to inspire future generations of scientists and science communicators.

Asian Americans on PBS
Within this collection you’ll find stories about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War, Filipino American farmworkers, the fight for ethnic studies, views from the top and bottom of success in Silicon Valley, and much more. Teachers can utilize the accompanying lesson plans to explore the ways that Asian Americans have shaped our nation's history.

Inspiring Scientists and Engineers to Know | Science Buddies
This list features Asian American and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander scientists and engineers who have made (and are making) important contributions to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Use this resource to help broaden student awareness and explore related science projects and career paths.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.