Joan A. Steitz, PhD, 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. Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. The award was announced today by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which cites Steitz’s pioneering role in expanding our 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 and Sydney Brenner 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.
“No one could have envisioned these discoveries four decades ago,” she says. “The advances have been astounding.”
“Dr. Steitz’s discoveries related to RNA substantially changed our understanding of how genes control the functions of the human body,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “Just as inspirational has been her role in raising the profile of generations of women in science.”
Since joining the School of Medicine faculty in 1970, 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.
Steitz will accept the award at a ceremony later this month in New York.