Early RNA Investigator to Share Journey of Discovery

Joan A. Steitz, PhD

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A researcher who has devoted her career to investigating RNA will give a state-of-the-art lecture, “RNA Biology and Medicine: A Journey of Unexpected Discovery,” on Sunday, Oct. 25. The speaker, Joan A. Steitz, PhD, is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Perhaps her biggest breakthrough came in 1979, when Dr. Steitz and her colleagues described a group of cellular particles called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), a breakthrough in understanding how RNA is spliced. Subsequently, her laboratory defined the structures and functions of other noncoding RNPs, such as those that guide the modification of ribosomal RNAs and microRNAs, as well as several produced by transforming herpes viruses.

She was publishing significant findings as early as 1967, when her doctoral thesis with mentor James Watson examined the test-tube assembly of an RNA bacteriophage (antibacterial virus) known as R17.

Dr. Steitz spent the next three years in postdoctoral studies at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where she used early methods for determining the biochemical sequence of RNA to study how ribosomes know where to initiate protein synthesis on bacterial mRNAs. In 1970, she was appointed assistant professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, becoming full professor in 1978. She established a laboratory at Yale dedicated to the study of RNA structure and function.

She is an editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, associate editor of RNA, associate editor of the Journal of Cell Biology, and a member of the editorial boards of Genes and Development and Molecular Cell.

Her many honors include the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology, National Medal of Science; Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Excellence in Science Award, RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award, Gairdner Foundation International Award, Pearl Meister Greengard Prize, the grand medal from the French Academy of Sciences, American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Herbert Tabor Award, American Chemical Society Biopolymers Murray Goodman Memorial Prize, Jonathan Kraft Prize for Excellence in Cancer Research, and Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation.

Dr. Steitz is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, National Academy of Sciences, and Institute of Medicine. She received her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University.

October-November 2020 (Vol. 12, Number 10 & 11)