Lasker Award to Joan A. Steitz honors decades of achievements
Award recognizes RNA discoveries and advocacy for women who work in science
Robert A. Lisak
Joan A. Steitz, PhD, has received the 2018 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science, one of the highest forms of recognition that a scientist can receive. Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. In announcing the award, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation cited Steitz’s pioneering role in expanding the understanding of RNA biology and her lifelong advocacy for inclusion of women in the sciences.
Working as a postdoctoral researcher with such renowned scientists as Francis Crick, PhD, and Sydney Brenner, PhD, at the University of Cambridge, Steitz showed how bacterial RNA binds to ribosomes and triggers the cells’ protein-making machinery. Her lab at Yale discovered in the 1980s that small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) play a central role in splicing, a key step in the expression of genes.
The finding helped explain the complexity of gene-based function in humans, “making the most of every gene,” as she has described it. Her work also helped fuel an explosion of knowledge about the key roles played by small non-coding RNAs in a host of biological functions and disease.
“She has generated a cascade of discoveries that have illuminated wide ranging and unanticipated functions for RNA molecules within our cells,” said Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, at a Sept. 13 reception in Steitz’s honor.
“Joan is miraculous in the way she comes up with new scientific concepts and principles that generate excitement in the field and scientists around the world,” added Karla M. Neugebauer, PhD, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and of cell biology. “Joan clearly views biology as a beautiful wilderness to explore.”
Yale President Peter Salovey, PhD ’86, expressed the pride of the entire university. “This is such a wonderful accolade,” he said. “You bring glory, of course to you and your lab and your students from across the decades, but for me anyway, you bring glory to our university and to each of us within it.”
Steitz, in turn, praised the university, whose faculty she joined in 1970. “Good science or great science does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in an environment where one has colleagues, where one has supporters, where one has super trainees in one’s lab. And that’s really what Yale has provided for me for over four decades. And it’s quite remarkable.” So, she added, is Yale’s sense of collegiality. “What’s special about Yale is that people are working together and discovering things together, and not competing with each other or competing with the guy next door. So basically, what I really want to say is it’s because of all of you that I find myself in this very nice situation.”
Steitz has amassed dozens of awards and honors including the National Medal of Science in 1986; election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, and the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) in 2005; fellowships in the National Association for the Advancement of Science in 1981 and the American Academy of Microbiology in 1992; and the American Society for Cell Biology’s highest honor, the E.B. Wilson Medal, in 2005.
Throughout her career, Steitz has advocated for inclusion of more women in the sciences. She co-authored a 2006 report for the National Academy of Sciences outlining barriers to the participation of women in sciences. For a decade she also led the Jane Coffin Childs Fund, which grants postdoctoral fellowships to early career researchers. At Yale, she has mentored young scientists, a number of them women, serving as a role model for their successful careers.
“[Joan] has campaigned for full inclusion of all members of the scientific community,” noted Alpern, “fueled by the conviction that reaching this goal is necessary to ensure a robust and innovative scientific enterprise.”
Johanna Withers, PhD, is one of many women who have done postdoctoral work in the Steitz Lab. “As mentees,” said Withers, “our development is a direct result of the scientific training environment that Joan has created in her lab. And she promotes our career plans, not hers. And she enables each of us to achieve our professional career goals by implementing and mentoring each of us specifically to our own needs. And she values each of us as a scientist and as a person.
“Thank you, Joan,” added Withers, reflecting the spirit of the entire community, “for being such an amazing and inspiring scientist.”