Joan Steitz on CSHL & American Democracy
  Joan Steitz     Biography    
Recorded: 04 Aug 2003

Well, it certainly played a huge role in terms of the meetings that have gone on there, the courses that have gone there. Now the publications; the books, the journals, etc. It’s a force in American science. And it’s the type of a force that isn’t present in other countries. I recently—this was agonizing for me, and I depended a lot on a lot of things that Jim had written, was asked to participate in a tercentennial course at Yale called Democratic Vistas. And this is an interdisciplinary course, well, it’s still going on but it’s now spring break, where the idea was that each week a professor from a different discipline would talk about American democracy and the impact that it has had on the particular field that the person specializes in. Now this is not something that I think about a lot. You know, people in economics and American history or maybe even literature or some of the arts probably think about this a bit. I hadn’t thought about this at all. But this all got organized a year and a half ago and since there are only two scientist who were asked to participate, I knew I had to come up with something. And so I ended up talking about American democracy and the origins of the biomedical revolution by which I really mean the origins of molecular biology because that’s where it grew out of. And why has molecular biology flourished in this country as compared to other countries that had comparable intellectual capital at the time that all was started. And you know I went through—was able to finally to gather together a whole bunch of things that are slightly differently done in the U.S.-- both in terms of the funding of science and how it’s done-- that relate to our democratic system and our ideals and how much we value the individual and individuality. And so I could come up with a lot of comparisons between our country and Europe, Japan, and places like Australia. And you know that one of the important things is places like Cold Spring Harbor which we have because there are people like Jim and our culture is set up so that it’s possible to engage all these local people into supporting the lab and yet get government support and have all these interactions and have this very sort of activist scientific, political role which is something that again is fairly unique for American scientists and again Jim is, you know, epitomizes a certain aspect of that. So it was a lot of fun thinking about all these things. I can actually give you a copy of this. It was agony. I delivered it February 27. There’s lots of Jim in it as you will see if you want a copy.

Joan Steitz is a prominent molecular biologist who earned her Ph.D. under Jim Watson at Harvard University in 1967. She joined the faculty at Yale University in 1970 and is currently the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and the Director of the Molecular Genetics Program at the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine at Yale. She is also an Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Steitz’s research involves determining the structure and function of small RNA-protein complexes.

She has received numerous awards including the National Medal of Science (1986), the Weizmann Women and Science Award (1994), the Novartis Drew Award in Biomedical Research (1999), the UNESCO-L'Oréal Women in Science Award (2001), and the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research (2002).