Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Scientists in Cell Biology, Biotechnology, and Public Health: Past, Present, and Future

Throughout human history, Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) scientists have made landmark discoveries that have changed the course of science and medicine and fundamentally altered the way we live and understand the world around us. Here, we honor just some of those countless men and women who have helped to lay the groundwork for biomedical research as we know and practice it today, often overcoming discrimination and lack of recognition to improve wellbeing for billions of people worldwide.

Note: We recognize that not all the scientists listed below may identify as Asian American or have done so during their lifetimes. However, we are moved by the significance of their achievements to celebrate them and increase awareness of their contributions to human health.

Pioneers in Bioengineering, Biochemistry, and Patient Care

Fe del Mundo (1911 – 2011)
Photo of Fe Del MundoFe Villanueva Del Mundo was a Filipina pediatrician and researcher whose eight-decade career in medicine was dedicated to improving the wellbeing of children. Del Mundo received a medical degree from the University of the Philippines College of Medicine before moving to the United States to continue her training at Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University. Upon her return to the  Philippines, Del Mundo cared for children in WWII internment camps, established a full-service hospital that she led until 1948, became the head of the Department of Pediatrics at Far Eastern University – Nicanor Reyes Medical Foundation, and founded the first children’s hospital in the Philippines – now known as the Fe Del Mundo Medical Center. Del Mundo also advanced contemporary understanding of dengue fever and is credited with developing a low-cost incubator used to treat children with jaundice. Among many honors, Del was the first woman to receive the title of the National Scientist of the Philippines and was named an honorary member of the American Pediatric Society.

Note: Del Mundo is often referred to as the first woman accepted to Harvard Medical School. However, historians at Harvard believe Del Mundo was more likely among the first Asian or Filipina women to pursue graduate studies at Harvard, while not being enrolled at the medical school.

Tsai-Fan Yu 郁采蘩(1911 – 2007)
Image of Newspaper clipping of Tsai-Fan YuTsai-Fan Yu was a Chinese-American physician and researcher known best for her work on the causes and treatment of joint inflammation associated with gout. Born in Shanghai, Yu received a medical degree from Peking Union Medical College before moving to New York City where she taught at Columbia University. Later, Yu accepted a position as an associate professor of internal medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. During her long tenure at Mount Sinai, Yu made lasting contributions to science and medicine by establishing a link between joint pain and elevated levels of uric acid, a discovery that she used to successfully test several drugs still used to treat gout today. Yu also contributed insights on the relationship between gout and hypertension, proteinuria, diabetes, and other conditions. In 1973, she became the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Mount Sinai.

Yuan-Cheng Fung, PhD 馮元楨 (1919 – 2019)
Photo of Yuan-Cheng “Bert” FungYuan-Cheng “Bert” Fung was a Chinese-American bioengineer whose research into the physics and mechanics of living tissue helped lay the groundwork for the modern fields of bioengineering and biomechanics. After studying at Nanjing University in China, Fung earned a PhD in aeronautics and mathematics and went on to became an expert in the field of aeroelasticity. In the late 1950’s, Fung shifted his focus to bioengineering. The discoveries he made over the next six decades contributed to breakthroughs in vehicle safety and artificial skin grafts, expanded understanding of pulmonary and small-vessel circulation, and inspired the establishment of a biannual bioengineering conference. Among many honors, Fung was elected to academies of engineering, science, and medicine and received a National Medal of Science from President Clinton.

Harvey Akio Itano, PhD (1920–2010)
Photo of Harvey Akio ItanoHarvey Akio Itano was a Japanese-American scientist whose collaboration with Linus Pauling changed the course of sickle cell anemia research and helped to establish the field of molecular medicine. Itano, who was born in Sacramento, was imprisoned with his family at the Tule Lake internment camp in California during WWII. Despite the ordeal, Itano went on to earn a medical degree from St. Louis University and a PhD in chemistry and physics from CalTech. There, while studying under Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, Itano made the seminal discovery of his career. Using electrophoresi, Itano found that the hemoglobin from the red blood cells of sickle cell anemia patients differed from healthy hemoglobin, a finding that represented the first demonstration of a disease caused by an abnormality in a single molecule. For his achievements, Itano was honored with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became the first Japanese-American to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Har Gobind Khorana, PhD (1922 – 2011)
Photo of Har Gobind KhoranaHar Gobind Khorana was an Indian-American biochemist, a pioneering figure in the 20th century study of protein synthesis, and the first Asian and Indian born Nobel laureate in Physiology/Medicine. Khorana studied at the Punjab University in Lahore before moving to England, where he earned a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Liverpool. Further opportunities took him to Zurich, back to India, and then to Cambridge, where he began his seminal research on nucleic acids – the complex molecules responsible for the storage and expression of genetic instructions. After a research position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Khorana joined the Institute for Enzyme research at the University of Wisconsin, became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and conducted the landmark research that earned him the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for his work (with Marshall W. Nirenberg and Robert W. Holley) showing how the arrangement nucleotides determines protein synthesis and cell fate. Khorana, who later led the first team to synthesize the first artificial copy of a yeast gene, also received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the National Medal of Science.

AANHPI Scientists Making an Impact at ISCRM

Banner image of Asian American Scientists

Today at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, researchers in more than 130 research labs are working together to fight the root causes of disease using the latest advances in biology, engineering, and other disciplines. In these labs, dozens of Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander scientists at all levels are playing instrumental roles in the effort to change the course of medicine. Here are just some of their stories. You can learn about many other AANHPI scientists on our faculty page.

Hongxia Fu, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine/Hematology, studies how biomolecules and cells sense and respond to force, and how these mechano-responses contribute to physiology and disease mechanisms. Read more here.

Swati Mishra PhD, a postdoc in the Young Lab, is a key contributor to ongoing Alzheimer’s research at ISCRM, including a recent study implicating a gene known as SORL1 in the onset of the disease. Read more here.

Hao Yuan Kueh, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, studies how molecular circuits that control how specialized cells of the immune system develop from stem cells, how these cells respond to counter threats, and the lay the foundations for rationally engineering the immune system to fight cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Read more here.

Ronald Kwon, PhD, an Associate Professor of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, is the lead investigator behind a research effort to confront the genetic causes of osteoporosis using advanced imaging techniques. Read more here.

Akshaya Sridhar, PhD, a Research Scientist in the Reh Lab, is the lead author of a study examining how well retinal organoids approximate human tissue as disease-modeling tools. Read more here.

Rong Tian, Rong Tian, MD, PhD, is a Professor of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine and Bioengineering, the Director of the UW Mitochondria and Metabolism Center, and a world expert in mitochondria and cell metabolism in cardiometabolic diseases, heart failure and inflammation. Read more here.

Daniel Yang, MD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine/Cardiology is using 3D modeling techniques to study how genetic mutations in a particular gene cause a life-threatening form of heart disease, in the hopes of improving treatments for future patients. Read more here.

Xiulan Yang, PhD, a Research Scientist in the Murry Lab, is the lead author of the study demonstrating that adding the right combination of fatty acids to a culture of stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes promotes the maturity of the heart cells. Read more here.

Yan Ting (Blair) Zhao, a graduate student in the Ruohola-Baker Lab, is collaborating with scientists at the Institute for Protein Design to develop and test computer-generated proteins built to prevent and treat sepsis and other life-threatening conditions. Read more here.

Ying Zheng, PhD an Associate Professor in Bioengineering, is responsible for several recent advances in tissue engineering, including a breakthrough in the ability to engineer capillaries and new models to study how cells that line blood vessel respond to curvature. Read more here.

AANHPI Leaders in Our Field Today

Photo of John ‘Keoni’ S. K. Kauwe III
Photo Credit: BYU-Hawaii

John ‘Keoni’ S. K. Kauwe III (BYU-Hawaii)
John ‘Keoni’ S. K. Kauwe III is a geneticist primarily focused on the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. He is the current president of Brigham Young University–Hawaii and a professor in the Biology Department at BYU, Provo. He is a past director of the international Alzheimer’s disease DREAM challenge. Kauwe earned degrees in molecular biology and population genetics from BYU. After missionary service in Japan, Kauwe continued his training at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a PhD in evolution, ecology and population biology and completed a postdoc fellowship in Alzheimer’s disease genetics. Kauwe has led two multicenter grants funded by the National Institute on Aging, served as the chair of the Department of Biology and dean of Graduate Studies at BYU, Provo, and mentored more than 140 students in his research lab. He is a co-senior author of a 2020 article published in Scientific Reports that describes the biological mechanisms that lead to increased levels of an inflammatory cytokine protein associated with heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease – one of more than 120 peer-review papers he has published. Read more here.

Photo of Jennifer O. Manilay
Photo Credit: UC Merced

Jennifer O. Manilay, PhD (University of California, Merced)
Professor Jennifer Manilay is a Filipina-American developmental immunologist and the Chair of the Molecular and Cell Biology Department in the School of Natural Sciences at UC Merced. After earning degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard, Manilay began her lab at UC Merced when the campus opened in 2005. Today, she leads a team of graduate and undergraduate students and staff exploring the mechanisms of immune system development in the mouse and works closely with other investigators interested in immunology, hematology, developmental biology, stem cell biology and cell fate decisions. Her current area of focus is the influence of communication between bone and hematopoietic stem cells on immune cell fate decisions. Currently Manilay is the Program Director for an HHMI Inclusive Excellence in Science Education Grant, Principal Investigator for an NIAID grant, and co-leader of a cross-disciplinary NIH-funded collaboration focused on immune-cell development. Read more.

Photo of Michael Spencer
Photo Credit: UW School of Social Work

Michael Spencer, PhD (University of Washington School of Social Work)
Mike Spencer is the Presidential Term Professor of Social Work at the University of Washington School of Social Work and Director of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Oceanic Affairs at the University of Washington Indigenous Wellness Research Institute (IWRI). Dr. Spencer is also Adjunct Faculty with the School of Public Health in both Global Health and Health Services. He is of Native Hawaiian descent. His research examines health and wellness among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders and is focused on interventions that promote health among Native Hawaiians through indigenous practices and values. He uses community-based, participatory research approaches as well as indigenous methodologies. Currently, his funded research examines the added benefit of integrating Native Hawaiian healers into primary care. He also works with colleagues at the University of Hawai’i to promote food security and wellbeing through the use of backyard aquaponics systems. He has taught courses in diversity and social justice and community practice. He is also a Fellow of the Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR).
Source Copy: University of Washington School of Social Work

Notable AANHPI Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine

Shinya Yamanaka 山中 伸弥 with (Sir John B. Gurdon) – 2012
For the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent
Learn more.

Susumu Tonegawa 利根川 進  – 1987 (first Japanese winner)
For his discovery of the genetic principle for generation of antibody diversity
Learn more.

Tu Youyou 屠呦呦 – 2015 (First Chinese woman Nobel laureate)
For her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria
Learn more.

Notable AANHPI Nobel Laureates in Chemistry

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath) – 2009
For studies of the structure and function of the ribosome
Learn more.

Roger Y. Tsien (with Martin Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura) – 2008
For the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein
Learn more.

Additional Information and Resources

The University of Washington website The Whole U has compiled detailed resources related to cultural education and activities, UW AANHPI communities, mental health resources, and other support services. Click here to visit the Whole U.


Yuan-Cheng Fung

Harvey Akio Itano

Har Gobind Khorana

Tsai-Fan Yu
Yü, Ts’Ai-Fan; Perel, James (1980-05-06). “Pharmacokinetic and Clinical Studies of Carprofen in Gout”. The Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 20 (5–6): 347–351. doi:10.1177/009127008002000507. PMID 7400372.

Fe Del Mundo

Akira Endo

John “Keoni” Sai Keong Kauwe III

Michael Spencer