Recorded: 04 Aug 2003
It was wonderful. It was the heyday! Although some people who were there earlier might have said that the heyday was a little bit earlier. There was a group of incredible graduate students. It was mostly dominated by graduate students, although there were some very famous people who were postdocs at the time. And Jim clearly cared very much about the graduate students. And he would go off on speaking trips or meeting trips or I don’t know and come back with new bits of information and everybody would cluster around in order to hear the new bits of information that had just been acquired from labs that were doing similar, similar things.
So there was in a sense it was very fierce competition, but in another sense it wasn’t—it was different from the competition that one feels nowadays in that there was a very sort of tight communication and network of people wanting to figure things out. And it was a time when—when I was in the lab or just after I joined the lab was when the genetic code was cracked. When I took first year courses and I took one of them from Jim, you know, he talked about what is the genetic code because we didn’t know what the genetic code was at the time. And all sorts of other important things; like we didn’t know that tRNAs were suppressors and all sorts of really critical fundamental things in molecular biology hadn’t really been found out. One of the things that I remember that I always tell students nowadays since the human genome has just come out, of course, with Jim’s participation, is that one of my co-graduate students in the lab, who was the same year as I, wrote his entire thesis on the sequence of one nucleotide at the end of the R17 phage RNA. And today we have the sequence of four billion or however many it is bases of the human genome. So that’s how incredibly things have moved. And Jim was always a person who had incredible foresight. And an uncanny ability to know what the right answers is going to be. And get people to do the right experiments, to work towards that right answer. He was remarkable.
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).