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A longstanding commitment to basic science

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2022 Issue 169 Rising Up
by Adrian Bonenberger


A conviction about in the practical utility of basic science guided Joan Steitz’s research into RNA, and she never doubted that research would someday benefit humanity.

Every scientist hopes to achieve some insight, or make a discovery that expands the scope of human knowledge after years or decades of work. Looking back over the breadth of a career full of such insights, Joan Steitz, PhD, the Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, shares her thoughts about the importance of following one’s innate wisdom in seeking employment, and what makes Yale a special place.

Yale Medicine Magazine: How did you come to study biophysics and biochemistry?

Joan Steitz: Growing up, I was interested in science. My father, a high school guidance counselor, was very supportive of my interest. Also, he supported women having careers in general. This was the 1940s, and his position was unusual.

I attended Antioch, a liberal arts college. My father had been to Antioch too. He firmly believed that everyone needed a career and some practical experience along with it. Antioch had an unusual work-study program where every term, half of the students were off campus doing a job somewhere in the world. It was the beginnings of molecular biology, about 10 years after the discovery of DNA, and I ended up in what in retrospect was among the field’s most influential labs: Alexander “Alex” Rich’s lab at MIT. I worked as a lab technician with a graduate student, and it was the first time I worked on RNA, which became my lifelong passion.

YMM: Scientists believe that in some way their science is going to change the world. How does it feel, having seen practical results of your research firsthand?

JS: I knew doing basic science was important and would eventually help change the world for the better. But I’m genuinely surprised that I have lived long enough to see what it has meant in terms of the vaccine and in terms of human disease. There will be many more insights and discoveries.

Alex Rich was on the cover of Newsweek magazine in the 1960s next to a big model of DNA. The article inside explains that understanding DNA would someday solve human disease. For so long, those solutions seemed elusive, far off. Now they seem a heck of a lot closer.

YMM: What are you working on right now?

JS: I’m working on RNA. We don’t know enough about the actual structure of RNA to make the sort of predictions that can be made about proteins. And it’s important to be thinking in terms of structures and capabilities. There are lots and lots of structures because there are lots and lots of types of RNA. There are more functions for RNA waiting to be discovered, and it gets more exciting and daunting as time goes on.

YMM: Did you ever experience a crisis of faith working with RNA—a worry that your experiments wouldn’t work out?

JS: No. I tend to have a positive attitude. One can certainly have a crisis of faith in one’s own ability to contribute to science, but I learned early that things go up and down in science the way they do in any profession, and if you’re in a trough, it’s likely that you’re going to climb out of it. I always tell my students and postdocs if they’re feeling down or dejected, if you keep plugging away at a problem, you’ll find a solution, and your perspective on how things are going will shift.

It helps that the community of RNA researchers has always felt cohesive and supportive. A disproportionate number of women work in the field. Then, there’s still plenty to know about RNA, which for years was underestimated in terms of importance. Knowing there’s a need for more research, a sense of purpose, is always a powerful motivator to forge ahead.

YMM: Who are some of the remarkable mentors or influences you’ve had?

JS: The first great mentor of mine was Alex Rich. When I graduated from college, I decided I’d go to medical school because I’d never seen a woman running a lab or being a professor. I was rescued from that by Joe Gall, who was at Yale for years, and is now at the Carnegie Institution for Science (still going strong, doing his own experiments). I stumbled into his lab at Minneapolis the summer before I was to matriculate at medical school. He gave me my first project. By August 1, I’d decided that I wanted to make my own discoveries and was able to switch from medical school to a PhD program, and that was thanks to James Watson. I ended up being the first woman graduate student in Jim’s lab.

Those were the early mentors. Here at Yale, peer interactions were crucial. The recent story about the third-longest running grant at the NIH having been awarded to Dan DiMaio is a great example of ideas bringing labs or people together. When Fred Richards was given the mandate by Kingman Brewster to bring molecular biology to Yale, Richards filled the positions with people who were the same age and at the same point in their careers. Fred had good taste; every one of those people were elected to the National Academies of Sciences. RNA science has been well supported here institutionally, but also the various labs and scientists supported each other. Yale’s a very collegial place. At some universities people are looking behind them, wondering who’s sniping at them next door, and Yale isn’t like that.

Hundreds of people have come through my laboratory over the years; it’s incredible to think about that. The thrill of seeing someone make a discovery or achieve some profound insight is almost as great as achieving it oneself. From that perspective, many, many people influenced me in small ways throughout my career. The lab is a special place, an extraordinary place — doubly so at Yale. Being here was very important to my husband, and has certainly been very important to me. We were lucky to have gotten here.

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