Joan Steitz on Graduate Research: Changes Over Time
  Joan Steitz     Biography    
Recorded: 04 Aug 2003

I think the biggest different is just the size. That, you know, back then molecular biology was so slow—so small, not slow, small that you felt that you could know about, a bit about everything that was going on. And that you could completely read the literature and you could be familiar with what was going on at all the important labs because there were so few of them. Nowadays the field is so big and it’s absolutely impossible for anybody to keep up with it. So the students only see it, you know, a tiny little corner of it. And it’s much more complicated and it’s much more impersonal than I think it was at that time. And that’s why I feel so privileged to have been a part of it from a very early point. Not the very start, so I basically sort of became a part of this, on the order of ten years after the structure of DNA. But even being there at that time and remembering when I first heard about the existence of messenger RNA, which was 1961. So that was two years before I became a graduate student, it’s just been incredible to see what’s happened to the field. So that was a time when everybody in molecular biology worked on either E. coli or its phages. This was the legacy of the phage group that felt you had to work on something simple if you were ever going to have any hope of understanding anything. People who worked on more complicated things like mammalian cells were sort of scorned as being fools to think that they could ever get anywhere. And then to see all of that begin to change in the early 1970s and then, you know, you find out about the existence of introns and the fact that our genomes are very different from the bacterial genomes that we thought we knew about. I mean the whole thing is just absolutely breathtaking.

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).