Professor Joan Steitz Honored As Role Model For Women Scientists

Professor Joan Steitz’ lecture. Courtesy of Professor Steitz.

Professor Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, recently received two major awards for her achievements as a woman scientist.

Steitz received the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, an award given by Rockefeller University that recognizes outstanding achievements in science and aims to combat discrimination against women in the field. She also received the 2012 Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science for her “stellar record of research accomplishments” and pioneering work that has helped develop the current understanding of RNA and its role in health and disease. As part of the award, Steitz will visit the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to deliver a talk as a part of the Flexner Discovery Lecture Series, which features guest lectures from “the world’s most eminent scientists.”

Despite these recent accolades, among many others, Steitz was not always certain about her career path. When she was a college student in the 1960s, there were very few women in science. Inspired by the work she did under cell biologist Joseph Gall, she pursued studies at Harvard University and worked with influential scientists, such as Nobel Prize winner James D. Watson, against the odds. During her career, she has conducted research on how RNA operates in both bacteria and vertebrate cells and is now considered one of the leading scientists in her field.

“The most rewarding part of [being a scientist] is working in the lab,” Steitz said. “You discover and figure out things that nobody ever knew because of the experiments that you’ve done. I think that’s the biggest thrill for all scientists.”

Steitz is passionate about her work and is currently researching different types of noncoding RNA-protein complexes, providing critical insights into viruses and disease states.