AAPI in Science

As Next GenerAsian celebrates this year’s Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month by focusing on AAPI figures from the world of arts, activism and Covid-19 frontline workers, I decided to delve further into learning about AAPI figures who have made groundbreaking contributions in the world of science and technology (think tech giants like YouTube and Sony) throughout the years, therefore, this article spotlights some of those personalities who have worked in areas of my personal interest.

Considering my own habit of prioritizing astronomy, I’ll start off with none other than Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American to successfully fly into space with the Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-51-C. A member of NASA’s Astronaut Class of 1978 which was the first to include women, Hispanics and Asian and African Americans, Colonel Onizuka had a distinguished career with the United States Air Force, where he served as a flight test engineer as well as a test pilot in the past. During the mission, he was responsible for the activities of the primary payloads, which included the unfolding of the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) surface. After 48 orbits around the Earth, he had completed a total of 74 hours in space before dying a hero’s death when Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members.

Enough about space shuttles and test flights, now let’s concentrate on something closer to home. “Breakthroughs are born out of unusual circumstances,” quoting Shuji Nakamura — the mastermind behind the invention of blue LEDs which make it possible to light up our houses with white LEDs today. He is 100% deserving of the Nobel Prize he was awarded in the field of Physics (in 2014). Mr Nakamura has shown us that our dreams not only change how we see the world, but can also change how others experience it. He founded Soraa, a company dedicated to producing affordable, energy-efficient light bulbs while training future engineers at the University of California.

While talking about AAPI scientists, how can I miss out on the ‘First Lady of Physics’ – Chinese American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, who provided the first experimental proof that the principle of parity conservation does not hold in weak subatomic interactions. Wu worked on the Manhattan Project, where she helped develop the process for separating uranium into uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. Best known for conducting the Wu experiment (which proved that parity is not conserved) which earned her and her colleagues the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, she was also awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.

Frankly speaking, I did not know about all this. Is it due to the lack of representation in our science textbooks?

Turning to astronomy (again, I’m sorry) I present to you Kalpana Chawla, the first woman of Indian origin in space, someone I grew up learning about and, obviously, idolizing. She first flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator, travelling over 10.4 million miles in 252 orbits of the Earth. The words she uttered while hovering about the weightlessness of space have been stuck in the back of my mind ever since I read them and I think the same might happen to you too – “You are just your intelligence.” In 2003, she died a hero’s death in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the spacecraft disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Chawla was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and several educational institutions have been rightly named in her honour.

Genuine question: Why am I writing this (boring) article in the first place when I’m not sure if this topic even interests you? To answer your (actually my) question, I’ll cite a rather simple reason: I want you to educate yourselves and celebrate these figures who have (so painstakingly) placed the AAPI community on equal footing with the rest of the world.

Our last scientist for the day has also worked in the field of astro-(oops)-physics-(haha) and happens to be one of my personal favourites — Dr Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for “…theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.” Besides proving there was an upper limit to the mass of a white dwarf, he also developed theories on star atmospheres, black holes, the illumination of the sunlit sky, star structures and star mass, published ten books, and served as the editor of the prominent Astrophysical Journal for nineteen years (that’s a LOT)!

To say I’m not disappointed in the slightest when my textbooks talk about the first man in space but not the first Asian-American, the invention of light bulbs but not of LEDs would be lying, and therefore I would not say that, and maybe that was the very purpose of this article. “Your vision is not limited by what your eye can see, but by what your mind can imagine” — another Ellison Onizuka quote, perfect to end with. Happy AAPI Heritage Month 🙂








Edited by Michelle Nishidera

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