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Yale biologist inducted into Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

Medicine@Yale, 2009 - Jan Feb


Two pioneering School of Medicine scientists were inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame last October.

Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, was honored along with the late Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic, Ph.D., who was inducted posthumously.

Joan Steitz Steitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is best known for her discovery and characterization of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs; pronounced “snurps”), intracellular complexes that play a key role in the splicing of pre-messenger RNA, the earliest product of DNA transcription. By excising non-coding regions from RNA and splicing together the resulting segments, snRNPs help to create the messenger RNA (mRNA) templates for the making of proteins.

Steitz’s research has served to clarify how splicing expands the coding potential of human chromosomes, providing tools to advance the diagnosis and improve the prognosis of rheumatic diseases.

Steitz entered the Ph.D. program at Harvard University in 1963 in biochemistry and molecular biology, and she was the first female graduate student to work under James D. Watson, Ph.D., who had shared the Nobel Prize the previous year for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA. After completing postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale in 1970.

Steitz is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She recently became the first of two women to share America’s largest prize in medicine, the Albany Medical Center prize in medicine and biomedical research.

Goldman-Rakic, who was Eugene Higgins Professor of Neurobiology at the medical school, was a pre-eminent expert in the workings of the prefrontal cortex, seat of all higher-level cognitive functions. Her groundbreaking work led to the discovery of a link between the loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine and severe deficits in working memory, research that has contributed to understanding and treating diseases such as schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, Goldman-Rakic died in 2003 at age 66.

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