Taiwanese immigrant who invented N95 mask on working amid COVID-19 racism

"I just thought I had this responsibility to help. So I came out of retirement," Peter Tsai told NBC Asian America.
Image: Peter Tsai
Peter Tsai, the inventor of the N95 filtration material, at his home in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 3.Brianna Paciorka / News Sentinel

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By Kimmy Yam

Peter Tsai, the Taiwanese American inventor of the N95 mask technology, shared his thoughts on working in a time of rising anti-Asian sentiment and anxieties due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tsai, who immigrated to the United States in 1981 to earn his doctorate, volunteers his time and expertise to fight the virus and its transmission. While the pandemic has been marked with an uptick in hate incidents toward the Asian American community, Tsai, who's based in Knoxville, Tennessee, told NBC Asian America that he jumped at the opportunity to work.

Tsai, who patented the filtration material used in N95 respirators in 1995, said he has been inundated with questions about how to sterilize and maintain the efficacy of his technology since the beginning of the pandemic.

"I just thought I had this responsibility to help. So I came out of retirement," he said.

Tsai has experienced a fair amount of internet fame in recent weeks. He has become a sort of hero in representation for many in the Asian American community and beyond because of his critical contributions during the pandemic, as well as his background as an immigrant from Taiwan who came to the U.S. to study at Kansas State University. Many have hailed Tsai as a role model for working in spite of the difficult conditions for many who have similar backgrounds.

Not only have hate incidents toward Asian Americans grown significantly, with more than 800 incidents reported in California alone in the three months since the reporting tool Stop AAPI Hate launched, but the Trump administration also has sought to limit immigration.

In June, the president signed an executive order to freeze new H1-B visas for foreign workers through the end of the year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also recently tried to force international students on F-1 and M-1 visas, who are learning remotely, to leave the country. The rule has since rescinded as of Tuesday.

Tsai, once an international student himself, acknowledges that the environment is tough and that in his decades of work and in his past, he has had experiences with racism. However, he said, he has tried to tune out injustices, keeping the greater purpose of his work front of mind, instead.

"I did encounter something like this," Tsai said of discrimination, "but I just do my work, and I think what I do is good for the community. My technology is good for humans, then no matter how they treat me I did not care that much."

Immigrants, he said, must work harder and contribute more to society than native-born citizens to gain respect. It's a reality that, he said, not everyone must contend with.

"You can say it is unfair," Tsai said. "But there is not fairness in the world."

Luckily for him, he said, putting in extra work has never felt like an obligation. His thirst for research spans decades to when he was still in school. While he was required to finish 90 credits to graduate, he ended up completing more than 500 at Kansas State. Throughout the years, he said, he has always been hyperfocused on his research, immersed in his small science community.

"If you think you need to work harder in order to get the same position and then it is unfair. If you think of it another way, to work harder is my hobby," he said.

For a while now, he said, he has felt immense support from colleagues and collaborators who respect his work.

"If my technology works, and I can make the results they desire, then they are satisfied. They take me out to eat," he said, laughing.

At this moment, he said, there's one overarching message to be spread, given his expertise: wear a mask.