Let’s Pay Tribute to Jewish and Asian American Scientists
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May is Jewish American Heritage Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, both established to recognize the contributions the two groups have made to US history and culture. Name just about any field of endeavor, and you will find members of both groups high in the firmament. Architects Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei, artists Judy Chicago and Nam June Paik, comedians Jon Stewart and Margaret Cho, musicians Bob Dylan and Bruno Mars, and novelists Philip Roth and Amy Tan immediately come to mind, and that’s barely scratching the surface. But given I work for a national science advocacy group, I am particularly impressed with the number of breakthroughs made by Jewish Americans and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the fields of medicine, science and technology, especially considering that today they represent only 2.3 and 6.2 percent of the US population respectively.
Despite their spectacular successes, both groups have long suffered from discrimination, harassment and assaults, all which have spiked in recent years. Hate crimes in general jumped after the 2016 election and have continued to climb ever since, with Jewish and Asian Americans—along with Black and LGBTQ Americans—bearing the brunt. The nearly 3,700 antisemitic incidents last year were the most recorded since the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, began keeping track of them in 1979. Even more appalling, more than 11,400 racist incidents against Asian Americans were reported between March 2020 and March 2022, according to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition.
Contributions to medicine
Considering the major advances AAPI and Jewish Americans have made in medicine to prevent pain, suffering and death (eradicating polio, for example), it is especially ironic—and galling—that bigots have blamed both groups for COVID-19. (Absurd as it sounds, it is not the first time Asians and Jews have been scapegoated for pandemics, going back decades and even centuries.)
Not only did the two groups have nothing to do with starting COVID-19, scientists from both groups have played a major role, directly and indirectly, in saving countless lives during the pandemic.
Research conducted by AAPI and Jewish American scientists on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) helped lay the foundation for understanding infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Without that pathbreaking research, which began in the early 1980s, scientists would not have been able to develop such effective COVID-19 vaccines so quickly.
Flossie Wong-Stall, a Chinese American virologist and molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was the first scientist to clone HIV, enabling researchers to identify it as the cause of AIDS. Her research led to NIH developing antibody tests and, along with research by Taiwanese American physician and virologist David Ho and others, enabled scientists to discover that several drugs taken at the same time—a drug “cocktail”—could slow the virus’s advance.
Biochemist and immunologist Dan Barouch, who started a laboratory at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in 2004 to develop an AIDS vaccine, first worked with Johnson & Johnson to develop vaccines for Zika and Ebola. More recently, Barouch collaborated with the company on a COVID-19 vaccine, which is a direct result of his lab’s HIV research. Barouch’s Jewish father, an engineer, was born in Israel, and his mother, a biologist, was born in China.
Other Jewish American scientists also helped develop COVID-19 vaccines, among them Mikael Dolsten, the head scientist at Pfizer, and Tal Zaks, the former chief medical officer at Moderna. And both companies can thank University of Pennsylvania scientist Drew Weissman and his research partner Katalin Karikó for developing the revolutionary messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology their vaccines use.
Masks, notably the N95 respirator invented by Taiwanese American materials scientist Peter Tsai, also have saved untold lives. Tsai originally developed the mask to protect workers from dust. But, in 1996, a year after he patented it, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered it also blocked viruses and bacteria—including, as it turns out, COVID-19.
Contributions to science and technology
As in the case of medicine, there are myriad examples of scientific and technological advances by AAPI and Jewish Americans. For the sake of brevity, let’s just focus on their contributions to computer science and the internet, which have had such an enormous impact on our daily lives—and paradoxically provided bigots a bigger, more accessible platform to spread racist and antisemitic disinformation.
The history of computers is chock-full of Jewish American scientists. In the mid-1940s, for example, the US Army put computer pioneer Herman Goldstine in charge of developing ENIAC—the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. The first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer, ENIAC became the prototype of the modern computer.
A colleague of Goldstine’s, John von Neumann, who made significant contributions to quantum physics, quantum logic, set theory and other branches of science, is best known for developing a logical design for computers in the late 1940s. His design, called “von Neumann architecture,” became the basis for most computers.
Two decades later, in 1964, mathematics professor John Kemeny co-developed BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming language to enable students at Dartmouth University to write mainframe computer programs without needing a technical background. By the mid-1970s and 1980s, versions of BASIC were in widespread use in microcomputers—what we now call “personal computers.”
Evelyn Berezin, meanwhile, designed the first computerized word processor and founded a company in 1969 to market the machine, called the Data Secretary. (She also developed the first automated airline reservation system, which United Airlines put into service in 1955.)
Also in the 1960s, Paul Baran developed a computer-to-computer transmission mechanism that provided the foundation for ARPANET, a computer network created in 1969 by DARPA, the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was the first workable prototype of the internet, and Baran (not Al Gore) is often called the “father of the internet.”
More recently, Asian Americans have had enormous success developing hardware—and popular websites.
For example, in the mid-1980s, chemist Ching Wan Tang—a Hong Kong American working for Eastman Kodak—co-invented the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) flat panel screen display, which is thinner, lighter and more vibrant than liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. It was first used commercially by Pioneer in 1997 for a car stereo display and has since been adopted for smartphones, televisions and other products by a wide range of manufacturers, including Apple, Samsung and Sony.
A decade later, Ajay Bhatt, an Indian American computer architect at Intel, developed universal serial bus (USB) technology. First marketed in 1998, it enables peripheral devices—such as a mouse, keyboard, printer or scanner—to interchangeably communicate with a personal computer or smartphone.
As for website development, Steven Shih Chen, a Taiwanese American entrepreneur, founded YouTube with Jawed Karim, a Bangladeshi-German American, in 2005. The second most-visited website in the world, YouTube is now used by more than 2 billion people monthly.
Finally, I have to give a shout out to Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two Jewish Americans who developed the Google search engine in 1996 while in grad school at Stanford University and launched the company of the same name two years later. The most-visited website worldwide, Google is today used by 83.9 billion people every month. Without it, I would have had a much harder time finding background material for this column, not to mention for all of the columns and articles I’ve written over the last 25 years.
Diversity makes us stronger
The bottom line, of course, is this: We all benefit from the amazing contributions made by Jewish American and AAPI scientists, as well as by Jewish American and AAPI citizens in every other field. The idea of celebrating “heritage” months in the first place is to recognize the powerful stories of Americans with a wide variety of backgrounds and underscore the fact that diversity makes our country stronger. It brings more ideas to the table, and—as noted above—can lead to astonishing achievements that significantly improve our lives.
So, this month, as we recognize the contributions made by members of Jewish American and AAPI communities, let’s celebrate and acknowledge their rich histories and cultures while also addressing head on the corrosive discrimination both communities have experienced and continue to experience today. Recognizing both of these groups’ outsized contributions and the challenges they face can hopefully help us build a stronger, more inclusive society.