Joan Steitz

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There are some scientists who can capture an entire room; one such person is this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Dr. Joan Steitz, whose enthusiasm for science I had the honor of witnessing this past weekend. As one of the key figures in research of mRNA splicing, she visited Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as co-organizer of a special meeting: 40 years of mRNA splicing: from discovery to therapeutics. 

40 years ago, it was discovered that, unlike bacterial proteins, which are coded for by uninterrupted DNA sequences, eukaryotic proteins have more complicated instructions, containing regulatory regions called introns that have to be removed to produce the final messenger RNA (mRNA) that gets translated into protein. Steitz discovered complexes of protein and RNA called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) that carry out this process (termed splicing). Furthermore, she found that the RNA in these snRNPs bound to complementary sequences at splice-site junctions, providing an explanation for splicing specificity. These are just a couple of her many landmark discoveries, but she never expected to become the “science superstar” she is.

Steitz was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she planned to enter medical school. Wanting to pursue her love of science, she saw medical school as an “available” option for a woman, whereas, not seeing any female scientific professors, she saw academia as a men’s domain. However, after a research experience the summer before she was due to start at Harvard Medical School, she determined that the lack of women in science shouldn’t keep her from seeking a research career. She transferred her acceptance from Harvard Med to Harvard’s biochemistry graduate program, where she was the only woman in the class and faced gender discrimination (one professor refused to take her on in his lab reasoning that it would be a waste of his time to train a woman who’d just leave and start a family). After a postdoc at the University of Cambridge in England, Joan and her husband (and fellow biochemist) Thomas took positions at Yale, where they remain to this day, and Joan continues to research the many roles RNA plays in cells. Joan has received many honors including a National Medal of Science and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Hearing Steitz talk, you would never imagine that, as a college student, she doubted she had the enthusiasm for research required for the demands of life as a scientist. And, knowing about her decades of success at Yale, it’s heartening as an insecure grad student to learn that she had trouble picturing herself as a professor (let alone one whom starstruck grad students would be asking to take a picture with). In addition to being an amazing scientist, Steitz is a strong champion for women in science, advocating for resources including flexible childcare options. It was an honor to meet her.