Joan Steitz on Women in Science: Jim Watson’s Harvard Lab
  Joan Steitz     Biography    
Recorded: 04 Aug 2003

I found out after I entered the lab that I was the first woman graduate student he’d ever taken on. I was not aware of that initially. And, in fact, this is a little embarrassing, Jim wasn’t necessarily my first choice thesis advisor. I had—I mentioned to you that I had worked the summer before I started graduate school with Joe Gall and had gotten very involved in a particular project. And there was somebody at Harvard, a very important, very famous person whose lab was working on something that was quite closely connected to that. And I went along to that person first and said, you know, I’d like to work in your lab. And he looked at me and he said, “But you’re a woman. What will you do when you get married and have a family.” And I made it out of his office before I burst into tears. And then I went along to Jim and said, can I work in your lab? It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was blatant discrimination, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. So I was very lucky. I went along to Jim because I had gotten—I’d known him. I’d gotten along with him. I’ve done well in his course. And for some reason he said yes to me. So I was the first one. At that time I mentioned to you that there wasn’t yet a department. It was—you probably heard this from other people. There was a committee. It was called the Committee on Biolchemistry and Molecular Biology. That is the faculty was people from the biology department and the chemistry department. And so they have this degree granting program. And I forget now what I was going to say. Oh, yes and in that program during the time—it had been going for maybe four or five years before I got there. I’m not quite sure how many. And continued on until it was converted into a department which was again I think about five years after I left. During the time that I’m familiar with there were about ten students admitted to the program each year. And there was usually one woman out of the ten. I was the only woman in my class. The class before me there was one woman, the class after me there was one woman. The class after that there was I think still only one. So Jim did accept other female graduate students after that, but I know that I was the first.

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).