Recorded: 04 Aug 2003
I first met Jim in the winter of 1961, I think, when I was an undergraduate—so it might have been 1960. I can’t remember.I was an undergraduate at Antioch College and I was working in Alex Rich’s lab at MIT. And at the time—it was right around the time of the discovery of messenger RNA and lots of work on ribosomes. And Jim frequented the lab and noticed me and the next day or several days later there was a large bouquet of daffodils on my desk. And I was working helping a graduate student, Paul Knopf, and a postdoc, John Warner work on the isolation and characterization of ribosomes. I was working at a technician basically.
Within a year after that I actually decided I wanted to go to medical school. Having spent a year in Europe working in Tubigen in a virus laboratory which—I forget whether it was Jim or Alex that helped me get the position there. That was a junior year abroad. I decided I wanted to go to medical school and applied to several places and ended up being essentially enrolled to go to Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1963.
And after that I graduated in the spring of 1963. And during that summer I decided that I wanted to spend the time at home with my parents because I hadn’t seen too much of them. They live in Minneapolis. And I worked at the University of Minnesota in the laboratory of Joe Grall (??) who was still at Minnesota at that time but was in the process of moving to Yale where he was for about twenty years and then went on to the Carnegie Institution, a very prominent cell biologist. And he basically gave me my own project and started packing up to move to Yale and I found that I was so enthralled in what I was doing and that this was in contrast to how I felt when I worked as a technician in several labs previously that I decided I really wanted to go to graduate school. And at the end of August I think it was or the beginning of August, very late, I wrote I believe to Jim and said I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to go to medical school I want to go to graduate school. Is there any possibility?
And within several weeks it turned out that somebody had dropped out of a slot they had in their graduate program. So they did have an extra opening. And that’s how I ended up in the—it was actually committee at that time, it wasn’t even a department—that sponsored graduate students in molecular biology at Harvard. And so I was accepted at the very last minute and started graduate school in the fall of 1963. So I already knew Jim before that.
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).