The School of Medicine’s Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., has been awarded two major prizes that recognize outstanding achievements of women scientists.

Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was awarded the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize of Rockefeller University for more than four decades of research on how messenger RNA (mRNA) is fashioned in order to make proteins from the instructions in DNA, a process crucial to all life.

Steitz was also named winner of the 2012 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science, created “to honor and recognize a woman scientist of national reputation who has a stellar record of research accomplishments and is known for her mentorship of women in science” by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“Professor Steitz is both a tireless advocate and a visible and successful role model for women in science,” said Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology at Yale. “Her work was critical to our understanding of the complex and crucial role RNA molecules play in biology.”

As a student at Harvard University in the 1960s, Steitz almost decided not to pursue a career in science because of a lack of opportunities. However, with the encouragement of established scientists such as James D. Watson, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Prize for discovery of the structure of DNA, Steitz began to study how RNA operates in bacteria.

After coming to Yale in 1970, Steitz soon discovered “initiator regions,” sites in mRNA strands that mark where the cell’s protein-making machinery begins translating mRNA into proteins. In a classic paper published 10 years later, Steitz showed that RNA-protein complexes in the cell nucleus called snRNPs are critical to splicing, by which non-coding sequences are excised from pre-mRNA to form mRNA. Steitz has been an international leader in describing the molecular events involved in creation of mRNA. In the decades since, RNA biology has exploded, and Steitz continues to explore RNA’s diverse and powerful roles in the cell.

The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was created by Nobel laureate and Rockefeller professor Paul Greengard, Ph.D., who donated his entire monetary share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Rockefeller University to establish the annual prize, which honors the accomplishments of women scientists. The prize is named in memory of Greengard’s mother, who died giving birth to him. The award includes a $100,000 honorarium.

Winners of the Vanderbilt Prize receive a $25,000 honorarium, visit Vanderbilt to meet with faculty and to deliver a Discovery Lecture, and also serve as a mentor, “nurturing the career, research, and studies” of a Vanderbilt Prize Scholar, “a promising woman beginning her Ph.D. studies” at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Steitz will receive the award in May 2013.