The Fascinating Women Behind Three STEM Breakthroughs
March 16, 2022
by Lindsey Flannery
For Women’s History Month, we’re sharing the stories of three remarkable women whose research and discoveries transformed their fields and paved the way for modern technology that has literally changed the world: effective AIDs therapies, WiFi technology, and diabetes treatments.
Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D. • 1947-2020 • Health Sciences
Molecular biologist Flossie Wong-Staal was the first person to clone the HIV virus, a major research advancement in the treatment of AIDS. This led to an understanding of how HIV evades the immune system. Wong-Staal’s research also helped lead to the development of blood tests that detect the HIV virus, and her team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is credited with proving that AIDS is caused by HIV.
Born Wong Yee Ching in Guangzhou, China, Wong-Staal and her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 to escape communism. She went to a girls’ school led by American nuns, where she was an excellent student equally interested in poetry and science, but she chose science because that’s what the smart students were encouraged to choose. Before she moved to California to attend UCLA, the nuns at the school encouraged her to anglicize her name. Her father suggested “Flossie,” the name of a recent typhoon.
Wong-Staal worked for the NIH in the 80s, where her fellow researcher Bob Gallo said “she was the best I ever saw -- before, during or after.” After their string of breakthrough HIV discoveries, she went to work in 1990 at the University of California San Diego where she started the Center for AIDS Research, where she worked on gene therapy and other therapies for AIDS that informed current treatments. Later in her career, her focus changed to finding drugs to better treat Hepatitis C.
Her accolades include being honored as one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine in 2002, and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019.
Hedy Lamar • 1914-2000 • Engineering
A film star originally from Vienna, Austria, Hedy Lamar was much better known during her life for her beauty than for her brilliant mind -- even though her invention of frequency-hopping technology paved the way for wifi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.
Lamar was an only child with a father who loved to show her the inner workings of different machines, like street cars and the printing press. This piqued her curiosity, and at age five she would take apart her music box and put it back together to see how it worked.
Her film work eventually brought her to Hollywood, where she would work on her inventions in her trailer in between takes. On the cusp of World War II, she wanted to put her inventive mind to good use. Using knowledge she gained about weaponry from her previous marriage to a munitions dealer in Vienna, she and her friend George Antheil, a fellow inventor, came up with a new communications system intended to guide missiles to their targets. The system used “frequency hopping.” Both the transmitter and receiver would change to new frequencies together, which prevented the interception of radio waves.
Lamarr and Antheil received a patent for the invention, although the Navy decided against implementing the technology. The patent expired before Lamarr ever saw a penny from it, although in her later years, she received the recognition she deserved with several prestigious awards. She died in 2000, and in 2014 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Gerty Cori • 1896-1957 • Health Sciences
Dr. Gerty Cori was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences for her work studying how the body metabolizes glucose and how the body produces and stores energy. This led to treatments for diabetes and other diseases.
The process by which the body turns glycogen into glucose when energy is needed, and then stores glucose as glycogen for future use, is named “The Cori Cycle” for Gerty Cori and her co-researcher and husband, Dr. Carl Cori, who together discovered this process.
Born in Prague in 1896, Cori went to medical school at the German University of Prague and received her Doctorate in Medicine in 1920. It’s there she met Carl Cori, who was born the same year, and was also from a family of Austrian descent that had been in Prague for generations. They shared a love of research, and mountain climbing. They spent time both studying together and going on skiing and climbing excursions.
Carl Cori was drafted into the army during the first World War, and when they were reunited afterward, they received their medical degrees, published their first joint paper, and got married. However, finding an academic position in Europe was difficult for Cori because she was Jewish and a woman, so they decided to immigrate to the United States. Things were a bit better in the U.S., but they encountered constant resistance to their desire to work together professionally. When they first began working at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Cori made 10 percent of what Carl Cori made, even though they were equals in the lab.
In the 1920s, it was known that faulty sugar metabolism led to diabetes, and that insulin could keep the disease in check. But scientists did not understand why this happened -- the biochemical mechanism behind insulin’s effect, or how carbohydrates were metabolized. This is what led Cori to study what regulates blood glucose concentration and how the body metabolizes sugar. This research led to the discovery of the Cori Cycle and the Coris’ Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1947.
The Coris enjoyed many productive and successful years in St. Louis, but sadly, shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize, Gerty Cori was diagnosed with a terminal illness, myelosclerosis. She kept up her research until her death at age 61.
1. Cheslak, C. (2018, August 30). Hedy Lamarr. Retrieved from https://www.womenshistory.org/students-and-educators/biographies/hedy-lamarr