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

Now the other thing that I should mention about Jim is that at the time that I was considering whether I should even take a job at a university, he was extremely helpful. At the time that I was a graduate student and got my degree and then went with my husband off to Cambridge in order to do a postdoc, there were essentially no women on faculties in science in major universities in the U.S. It was before the women’s movement of the late 1960s. And even though I decided not to go to medical school where there were some women and do science. I envisioned because it was the only model that I could see around me, that I would spend my life in—quietly in the corner of some man’s laboratory doing experiments because the only women that I knew who were scientists did that. And then when we were in England between 1967 and 1970 the women’s movement happened. The beginning of it happened in this country. And all of a sudden in 1970 people started offering me positions on the faculties of universities. And I was flabbergasted. And I was terrified because I had not mentally prepared myself to do that because I had never thought that I would do what my male peers had in store for them in terms of their future lives.

And I remember in the summer of 1970 coming back and attending part of the Cold Spring Harbor symposium which was not on translation, which was my field at the time, but on transcription which was a related but slightly different field. And realizing that I had already said that I was going to accept this job at Yale and become an assistant professor. And sitting there in the meeting and having such great difficulty understanding the talks that at one point I sort of broke down and I went along to Jim and I said, “Jim, I just—I can’t do this. There’s no way that I can be a professor. I’m just not equipped to do this.” And he was absolutely wonderful. And he looked at me and he said, he said, “You know, when I was a first year professor at Harvard I used to have nightmares about having to get up and give lectures.” And he told me a lot of personal stuff and was very comforting and very supportive. And I think without his being supportitive and encouraging me that I could actually maybe do it, I might have just said, “no, I can’t do this”, because there were—at that time almost no other women who were starting. Now there got to be more very fast so that now there is a cadre of women scientists but this is something I never expected at the time. I was either a graduate student or a post doc.

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).