Joan Steitz, PhD

Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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Years active at Yale: 1970- present

Dr. Steitz is being recognized as a pioneer in the study of small, noncoding RNA molecules, essential for gene expression in most cells. In 1979, her lab discovered small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs). These tightly bound complexes of proteins and small noncoding RNAs are critical for the removal of introns—snippets of genetic material that interrupt a gene’s protein-coding sequence. Introns must be removed before RNA can be used as a template for protein synthesis. The removal process, called splicing, takes place in large snRNP-protein complexes called spliceosomes. After showing that snRNPs are essential for splicing, Steitz’s lab deciphered how particular snRNPs recognize intron splice sites.

She has since identified other snRNPs that participate in splicing different types of introns and in developmentally controlled mRNA processing. Her lab has also discovered small nucleolar RNAs, which prepare ribosomal RNA as a building material for cells’ protein factories.

Internationally renowned, Dr. Steitz has won multiple awards for her scientific achievements. She is the recipient of the 2018 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, one of the highest forms of recognition that a scientist can receive. She has received 11 honorary degrees, the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science from the National Cancer Institute, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award, the Excellence in Science Award from the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology, UNESCO-L'Oréal Award for Women in Science, the National Medal of Science from the National Science Foundation, and membership in the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.