Joan Steitz on Scientific Career
  Joan Steitz     Biography    
Recorded: 04 Aug 2003

I really have to talk about two things because one thing was something that was really mine and the other was something that’s been my labs. And it’s difficult for me to—the one that was really all mine was somehow even more exciting than the one that I’m mostly famous for. So the first thing was what I started telling you about was my work in Cambridge, England where I was interested in trying to figure out how ribosomes were able to tell the beginnings of genes from all the other parts of the messenger RNA and bind there and start making proteins at the right places. And it turns out that I’ve continued to focus on that problem and some additional ones when I’ve started my lab at Yale. And an answer to what was going on on the molecular basis didn’t come until 1975 when I did an experiement that showed—and this was really all my own work—that showed that the way that ribosomes find these right sides on the message it by base pairing, Watson/Crick base pairing between the RNA that’s in the ribosome and a piece of the RNA that’s just upstream of where the gene starts. And that was thrilling. I mean one of the greatest joys in science is realizing that you know something that nobody else knows. And you’ve just done an experiment that told you something important. And it’s almost as much fun to share that sort of joy with younger colleagues, but it’s not as much fun as when you’ve done it yourself. And I remember driving home the night after I developed that gel. It must have been two o’clock in the morning and thinking, my god, this is how the ribosomes do it. That there’s that base pairing interaction. And then it was five years later that this amazing business happened that got us into SNRPs (??) which is what my lab is really famous for. But that was—I mean I was very much involved in that. Involved in the ideas and involved in the direction. And it was a matter of picking up on something that I heard that sent a student off doing what he was doing. But it was very much the work of Michael Lerner, who was a M.D./Ph.D. student in the lab that got us on to that. And so that’s also been very, very exciting. Actually I’ve just written two things for Ben Lewen’s (??) new website Air Guitar which you must know about. About one on each of these discoveries and I’m just in the final stages of putting in the references and one of them will be up soon about those discoveries. So those are clearly the two big things. And the whole SNRP thing, I mean was—I mean it just followed right from the ribosome because it was a matter of a particle that had RNA and a protein in it. And a part of the RNA sticking out and making base pairs with the thing it was going to act on. So it was just the same story all over again except in a different way and a different subject. So those are the two things that are important in my scientific career. And ever since then it’s just been great fun figuring out more about what’s really going on and the details.

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).

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