Joan Steitz

Joan Steitz
"Women of my day had six kids and a station wagon. At that time there were no women professors in the natural sciences at any major university. Consequently, I never envisioned myself being where I am today. I never thought I would teach; I never thought I would mentor graduate students; I never thought I would be on the faculty of a prominent university. I really thought I would be a research associate in someone's lab—a man's of course."
- Dr. Joan Steitz

Induction Category:
Science & Health

Born: 1941

Inducted: 2008

Town: New Haven

When Joan Steitz entered Harvard University in 1963, she was the only woman in Harvard’s first class of biochemistry and molecular biology graduate students. Knowing that there were not a lot of women working in the sciences and that she would face gender discrimination, Steitz was unsure of how far she would be able to go in her chosen profession. During her first year of graduate school, a famous, well-respected male professor refused to advise her thesis work because she was a woman. Steitz could have been discouraged, seeing the barriers against women in the sciences as insurmountable. Instead, she persevered, welcoming Nobel Prize winner James Dewey Watson as her advisor and completing her degree in molecular biology. Dr. Steitz is now renowned as a pioneer in the study of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and is considered one of the most distinguished molecular biologists of the 20th century. She is known for her discovery and definition of the function of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which are are critical for all of life’s basic processes and help in treatment for such autoimmune diseases as lupus.

Born in Minneapolis, Minn., on January 26, 1941, Joan Argertsinger was always intrigued by science, and her parents encouraged her to pursue her interests. After graduating from an all-girls high school, she continued on to Antioch College in Ohio where she received her B.S. in chemistry. Convinced that as a woman she would never have the opportunity to run her own lab, she resolved to become an M.D. and was accepted to Harvard Medical School. However, after a summer job in a laboratory at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of cell biologist Joseph Gall, she applied instead to Harvard’s new program in biochemistry and molecular biology.

At Harvard, she met Thomas Steitz, an X-ray crystallographer. The couple married in 1966 and, after finishing their doctorates, moved in 1967 from Cambridge, Mass., to Cambridge, England, for postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. There, Steitz made her first mark as an independent investigator by locating three translation “start points” on bacteriophage mRNA. However, when Tom was offered a position at Berkeley and inquired about a similar opportunity for his wife, he was told that women did not want jobs and that there was not one for Joan. In 1970, both Joan and her husband were offered positions at Yale University, and she joined the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, first as an assistant professor and later as an associate and full professor. In New Haven, Steitz began her groundbreaking and now famous research on the function of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPS) in pre-mRNA splicing. In 1986, she also became an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

In addition to being one of the first two women scientists to receive the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research (2008), America’s largest prize in medicine, Dr. Joan Steitz has been honored by many awards including the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (1976), the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology (1982), membership in the Nation Academy of Sciences (1983), the National Medal of Science (1986), the Novartis-Drew Award in Biomedical research (1999), the FASEB Excellence in Science Award (2003) the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award (2004), the ASCB’s highest scientific honor, the E.B. Wilson Medal (2005), the National Cancer Institute’s Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science, National Cancer Institute (2006), the Gairdner International Prize (2006), and 11 honorary doctorates. In 2012, Dr. Steitz was awarded the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize and the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science. Both awards honor not only her pioneering work with RNA but also her commitment to advancing the careers of women scientists.

Dr. Joan Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and continues her work with the HHMI and advocates for gender equity in the sciences.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice