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5 Asian American and Pacific Islander Contributors to STEM Fields

5 Asian American and Pacific Islander Contributors to STEM Fields

Next week marks the beginning of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which goes through the month of May each year. As of the 2020 census, in the United States, over 24 million people identify as Asian alone or in combination while 1.6 million people in the United States identify as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone or in combination. People from these groups make up 13 percent of the STEM workforce.

But despite these numbers, ongoing analyses continue to show that progress is still needed to achieve gender, racial, and ethnic diversity within STEM fields. In recognition of AAPI Heritage Month, we’re calling out five scientists of AAPI descent who have made a significant contribution to a STEM field. These individuals are among the promising leaders who have played or are playing an important role in shaping the future of the scientific community and beyond.

Ethnobotany: Isabella Aiona Abbott

Isabella Aiona Abbott was born Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona in Hana, Maui, Territory of Hawaii, on June 20, 1919. Her Hawaiian name means "white rain of Hana" and she was known as "Izzy." Her father was ethnically Chinese while her mother was a Native Hawaiian. Her mother is credited with teaching her about edible Hawaiian seaweeds. Abbott was the only girl and second youngest in a family of eight siblings.

Abbott graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1937. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in 1941, a master's degree in botany from the University of Michigan in 1942, and a PhD in botany from the University of California, Berkeley in 1950, becoming the first Native Hawaiian woman to earn a doctoral degree in a field of science.

She married zoologist Donald Putnam Abbott, and the couple moved to Pacific Grove, California, where her husband taught at the Hopkins Marine Station run by Stanford University. At that time, women were rarely considered for academic posts, so Abbott spent time raising her daughter while studying the algae of the California coast. In 1960, she was hired as a lecturer in biology and began teaching summer courses and publishing scientific papers. Finally, in 1972, her work as a researcher and teacher were recognized when she was hired as a full professor in biology.

Over the span of her career she won many awards, including the Darbaker Prize and a Lifetime Achievement Award, and authored eight books and over 150 research papers. She has been credited with discovering over 200 different algae species and had many of these named after her. According to a posthumous article written about her achievements in the Stanford News, Abbott enthusiastically sought to revitalize the relationship people have with natural ecosystems through the mindful consumption and utilization of plants all around us.

Reproductive Biology: Min Chueh Chang

Chinese American reproductive biologist Min Chueh Chang is most often recognized as the co-inventor of the combined oral contraceptive pill. Chang’s research, which focused on mammalian reproduction and specifically on in vitro fertilization, contributed to the first "test tube baby"; this work has made parenthood possible for many around the world.

Chang was born on October 10, 1908, in Tai Yuan, China. As the son of a magistrate, he was able to attend university, and he received his bachelor’s degree in animal physiology from Tsing Hua University in Peking in 1933. After graduating, Chang remained at the university to teach and study nerve cells. In 1938, he received a fellowship to study agricultural science at Edinburgh University. In 1939, Chang accepted an invitation from Arthur Walton at Cambridge University, where he remained until 1945 and studied the metabolism, motility, and fertilizing capacity of ram sperm, which had a number of applications in the artificial insemination of farm animals.

In the late 1940s, Chang teamed up with John Rock and Gregory G. Pincus to study how the hormone progesterone can become a birth control agent. By 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had officially approved their creation of the first oral contraceptive pill, Enovid. Along with his work on the development of “the pill,” Chang made a number of discoveries throughout his scientific career involving a range of topics within the field of reproductive biology. He published nearly 350 articles in scientific journals. 

Throughout his career Chang received numerous awards for his contributions, including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 1954, the Ortho Medal and Award by the American Fertility Society in 1961, the Hartman Award by the Society for the Study of Fertility in 1971, the Wippman Scientific Research Award by Planned Parenthood in 1987, and he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1990. 

Aeronautical Engineering: Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla was an aerospace engineer and the first Indian American woman in space on NASA's 1997 Columbia space shuttle mission (STS-87) as a robotic arm operator. Chawla tragically died on February 1, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to its scheduled landing.

Chawla was born on March 17, 1962, to a Punjabi Hindu family, in Karnal of present-day Haryana, India. As a child, Chawla was fascinated by airplanes and flying, visiting local flying clubs and watching planes with her father.

Chawla’s family falsified her date of birth to allow her to become eligible for the matriculation exam. After getting a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, she moved to the United States in 1982 and obtained a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1984. Chawla went on to earn a second Masters in 1986 and a PhD in aerospace engineering in 1988 from the University of Colorado Boulder.

In 1988, Chawla began working at NASA Ames Research Center, where she did computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research on vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) concepts. After joining Overset Methods, Inc. in 1993 as Vice President and Research Scientist to form a team specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems, Chawla moved on to the NASA Astronaut Corps in 1995 and was selected for her first flight in 1997. She flew on STS-87 (1997) and STS-107 (2003), logging 30 days, 14 hours and 54 minutes in space. Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA  Space Flight Medal, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

Microbiology/Botany: Roseli Ocampo-Friedmann

Roseli Ocampo-Friedmann was born Roseli Ocampo on November 23, 1937, in Manila, Philippines to Eliseo and Generosa Ocampo. Her work in microbiology and botany, particularly in the study of cyanobacteria and extremophiles, has been cited in work exploring the terraforming of Mars.

After completing a degree in botany from the University of the Philippines in 1958, Ocampo-Friedmann earned a master's at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1966. She returned to the Philippines to work for Manila's National Institute of Science and Technology. In 1968, she joined Imre Friedmann at Florida State University where she received her PhD in 1973. Ocampo-Friedmann married Friedmann in 1974.

Together, the couple traveled internationally to study algae and other microorganisms. In the mid-1970s, the couple went to the Ross Desert in the Dry Valleys region of Antarctica, where the mountain ranges were thought to be lifeless. Here, Ocampo-Friedmann discovered living microorganisms, called cryptoendoliths, inside rocks within these seemingly lifeless and almost entirely ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys. The microorganisms survive winters in this Antarctic desert and are then capable of thawing, rehydrating, and photosynthesizing in the summer. 

The National Science Foundation awarded Dr. Friedmann the US Congressional Antarctic Service Medal in 1981 for her notable work. By the late 1990s, she had gathered almost 1,000 different cultures of extremophiles all over the world. Later in her life, she worked as the principal investigator at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. A few months before she passed away in 2005, Friedmann Peak, a mountain in the Darwin Mountains of Antarctica where she co-discovered endolithic microorganisms in the Beacon sandstone, was named after her.

Once in the US, Tsai began postgraduate work at Kansas State University in 1981, completing over 500 credits in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, physics, and chemistry. After receiving his doctorate in materials science, Tsai went to teach and work at the University of Tennessee. According to his daughters, Tsai taught them that “it’s not only about the quality of the work you do, but how you make a difference for the people you work with and the final result of your accomplishments.”

Material Science: Peter Tsai

Peter Tsai, sometimes referred to in recent media as “the man behind the mask,” is most famously known for inventing the N95 mask. N95s block up to 95 percent of the particles that come in contact with the mask using the corona electrostatic charging method. The mask's filter, which contains both positive and negative charges, attracts neutral particles, like bacteria from viruses, and polarizes those particles, trapping them before they can pass through the mask.

In 2020, Tsai came out of retirement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he took on the task of working with the scientific collective N95DECON on ways to decontaminate N95s. Although he found that the best method of decontamination was to keep the masks in 160-degree dry heat for 30 minutes, which can be feasibly done by hanging them in an oven, Tsai’s recommended method of decontamination, as told to CNN Health, is to buy seven N95 masks and rotate them, using a new one each day. After not being in use for seven days during this rotation, any bacteria the mask has caught becomes inactive.

Peter Tsai (蔡秉燚) grew up on the family farm in Chingshui, Taiwan. As one of ten children in a low-income household, he learned the value of hard work early on. After graduating from Taichung Municipal Chingshui Senior High School and completing two years of required military service, he attended the National Taipei Institute of Technology in the hope of pursuing a career. Following graduation, Tsai worked at China Textile Testing and Research Center (now Taiwan Textile Institute) and then a dyeing and finishing company. Tsai decided to pursue a graduate program in the United States to fulfill his desire to understand his work in a more meaningful way through studying the theoretical concepts behind his interests—but realizing this dream took another four years as he accumulated the funds needed.

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