Skip to Main Content

Honoring an RNA pioneer, backing science’s next generation

Photo by Harold Shapiro
(From left) Joan Steitz has been honored by a new Yale Scholar fund endowed by Donald McCluskey, the eighth such fund in the initiative launched by Dean Robert Alpern in 2005.

In 2007, Natalia B. Ivanova, Ph.D., arrived at the School of Medicine with ambitious plans. A rising star in stem cell biology, she had just left a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, and her first order of business was to hire a team for her Yale laboratory.

Most medical investigators are funded not from a central budget, but through grants from the government or other institutions. Young scientists are pressed to win support from these backers, who tend to favor established researchers. But Ivanova, assistant professor of genetics, had a leg up: she was the medical school’s first recruit to benefit from the Yale Scholars initiative, which provides young scientists with support that allows them to focus on science during their earliest years as independent researchers rather than scramble for funding.

The brainchild of Dean Robert J. Alpern M.D., the Yale Scholars Award provides $250,000 per year for four years to cover salary and start-up costs for a promising new faculty member at the School of Medicine.

“This was a tremendous advantage, allowing me to get right to work on my ideas,” Ivanova says, adding that the promise of support from the Robert T. McCluskey, M.D., Yale Scholar Fund sealed her decision to come to Yale. That fund was endowed in 2006 by Donald S. McCluskey, M.Eng., an alumnus of Yale College and the Faculty of Engineering, to honor his brother (now deceased), a Yale College alumnus and physician-scientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital for five decades.

Now McCluskey has created a second Yale Scholar endowment, named for Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and pioneer in the study of RNA.

Steitz has said that she “fell in love with RNA” as a college student in the early 1960s and she maintained that focus through graduate school and postdoctoral training. She joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1970, and within five years she had discovered “initiator regions,” sites in messenger RNA (mRNA) strands that mark where the cell’s protein-making machinery begins translating mRNA into proteins. In a classic paper published five 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. In the decades since, RNA biology has exploded, and Steitz continues to explore RNA’s diverse and powerful roles in the cell.

“Dean Alpern envisioned an environment where new faculty members are free to work on their best ideas,” says McCluskey, whose new gift brings the total number of Yale Scholar funds to eight. “I am happy to name this new fund in honor of Joan Steitz, a scientist who exemplifies the power of original thinking.” To sustain the funds, gifts like McCluskey’s two $2.5 million donations establishing Yale Scholar Funds are matched by a commitment from Yale University—evidence of the program’s importance to recruiting and jump-starting research.

“A Yale Scholar Award allows a new scientist to gain traction on a research idea even if it is not a conventional one,” Alpern says. “A Yale Scholar has the latitude to take novel approaches, to adopt new techniques or to work at the intersection of disciplines where it is harder to find grants. By year five the researcher should be well positioned to attract his or her own funding.”

Today, Ivanova continues her work at the Yale Stem Cell Center (see “Advances”), and her position as a McCluskey Scholar has passed to Andrew Goodman, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbial pathogenesis, who studies microbial communities in the human gut.

“I am deeply grateful to Mr. McCluskey for his generous support,” Alpern says. “Natalia Ivanova and Andrew Goodman are at the start of a long line of distinguished McCluskey Scholars, and by September we will announce our first Steitz Scholar. This remarkable legacy will shape the School and the discoveries we can make here for generations to come.”