Faculty Spotlight - Joan Steitz

Joan Steitz
September 8, 2021

This month we spotlight Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and Howard Hugh Medical Institute Investigator, who has served as a faculty member at Yale for over fifty years. Steitz dedicated her career to educating students and accomplishing groundbreaking research on RNA. She discovered and defined roles for small ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which process pre-messenger RNA to produce mature mRNA. Her group has continued to publish pioneering work on noncoding RNAs, which are crucial regulators of gene expression.

Steitz attended Antioch College and graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. She then earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1967 and completed postdoctoral training at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. Following further postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, Steitz joined MB&B as an assistant professor in the early 1970’s. She later earned her role as an associate and then full professor, at one point serving as Department Chair. Steitz is the recipient of numerous awards, including most recently the Wolf Prize in medicine. We highlight a few excerpts from our interview on her career and advice to aspiring scientists.

On what most excites her about research and about coming to work each day:

“There are always interesting questions that I want to know that answer to. Figuring out things. And as I grow older, I’m not figuring out things because I’m not in there doing the pipetting but it’s almost as much fun to share with somebody who’s younger as it is to do it yourself.”

Steitz initially considered attending medical school, where she saw a growing precedent for women in medicine. While at Antioch, however, Steitz participated in a work-study program that matched students with jobs related to their field of study. The program provided Steitz an opportunity to glimpse the new field of molecular biology and introduced Steitz to the world of RNA.

“It was all serendipity as so much in science is. When I first got interested in molecular biology, it wasn’t even really a field because it couldn’t start until really after 1953 with the double stranded structure of DNA. I ended up luckily in one of the very first molecular biology labs in the United States in the lab of Alex Rich [at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. He was studying DNA and RNA and my first project was to work on RNA and ribosomes. The project was a total failure for reasons that weren’t apparent then but are now obvious… yet somehow, I liked it. That’s what switched me from thinking I should go to medical school – because there weren’t any women in the field that I could see as role models – was getting my own project for the first time.”

When Steitz first entered the job market, she was denied a position at University of California, Berkeley, where her late husband Tom Steitz was offered a faculty position. The department chair at the time noted that women scientists were all happy to be research associates, not professors. The Steitzes instead came to MB&B, where both received tenure track offers. Steitz cites the joint offers, strengths in scientific research, and collegiate atmosphere as reasons for choosing and remaining with MB&B throughout her prolific career.

“Firstly, both Tom and I had positions at Yale that were going very well and it’s very hard to find comparable positions elsewhere. Secondly, Yale has real strengths in structural biology and also in gene expression aspects of what cells do. And thirdly, Yale is a very collegiate place and people talk to each other about their science – it isn’t each lab competing with the lab next door. It isn’t necessarily that everyone has to collaborate in terms of getting their names on papers, but we share ideas and share goals and share thoughts about where things are going and that’s really important.”

Steitz balanced the demands of a faculty position and running a prolific research group with those of raising a child and building a home life. During a time in which she was the one of two female faculty members in MBB, Steitz credits the late Dr. Steitz with helping her to manage the challenges.

“My husband was wonderful. He really shared, including cooking half the dinner every night. I did the shopping and said ‘we’re going to have this,’ but then he would always cook the meat. He was wonderful about everything and also took responsibility for our son.”

Steitz has mentored many students as both a professor and as a principal investigator. When she first joined the department, there were approximately only three undergraduate students per class. This enabled her to assign and tailor individual research projects to each student, who could then undertake research in Steitz’ own lab. The department’s growth initiated dedicated lab courses, and Steitz continued to welcome students to participate in research in her group. When asked what qualities make for a successful researcher, Steitz acknowledged that background and interests can vary greatly. Importantly, according to Steitz, students should have independence and room to pursue their own research ideas.

“It’s really important that everybody have their own project and not just be somebody else’s helper. Everybody that gets here has great potential. If they’re curious and spend some energy to inform themselves further about what’s going on and get enthusiastic about other people’s work in the area – that’s how good people are.  It’s good to feel like there are younger people out there whose interests you can stimulate.”

In addition to understanding the scope of the field pertaining to a particular project, Steitz asserts that inspiration and ideas can arise from looking beyond the scope of a scientist’s own research.

“I think it’s really valuable – and again this is part of the Yale collegiate atmosphere – not to just have blinders on and be very focused just on your own one research project because you get ideas and get new directions and get techniques and things like that from listening to other people even though it might not seem that their work is it all relevant and then you end up realizing that you know in small ways all this helps you think about the problem you’re tackling. And so why not go along and see what you can learn.”

Just prior to her groundbreaking discovery of snRNPS and autoantibodies, Steitz questioned whether her lab would achieve findings of similar magnitude to those in her post-doctoral work.

“I remember wondering, ‘would I ever be able to anything slightly different that’s as significant as what I did as a postdoc?’ Since then, I’ve had all these wonderful people in the lab and somebody’s always going off in the right direction, so something always works out.”

On where her field is going:

“I think we need to understand a lot more about RNA structure and that’s one of the things that we’re working on. We don’t know nearly as much about RNA structure as we do about protein structure, so that’s something that I find fascinating. I am actually surprised by how many different diseases can be traced to some problem with splicing. In retrospect it’s not so surprising, but on the other hand I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that in advance and then that goes along with the complexity of the spliceosome and how many different forms there are. What a complex thing – how did it ever evolve? – that it’s no wonder if a little thing goes wrong over here that something might go wrong over there. I also never thought I would live – I mean I thought it would happen because I believe in science and I believe in basic research – but I never thought I would live to see RNA make a huge impact on global health right there before our eyes.”

Since joining the department, Steitz has helped teach the MBB undergraduate introductory biochemistry course, including spearheading its expansion from a one-semester to a two- semester course in 1978. Around that time, understanding of DNA, RNA, and gene expression expanded rapidly. Teaching the course required continuous familiarity with new breakthroughs and updates in the field. Steitz credits Lubert Stryer, who originally taught the one-semester course, with inspiring her to approach teaching with engagement and enthusiasm. This past spring was Steitz’s final year teaching introductory biochemistry.

“I feel sort of sad [to retire from teaching a core course], but it’s a lot of work to teach undergraduates. Because I find even if I’m talking about stuff that I talked about last year there’s always a new paper that came out and if you try to keep up with a little bit in these other fields you always learn something that may turn out to maybe to be important to what you’re more directly thinking about.”

Despite her pending retirement from teaching so much, Steitz continues to run a productive research group and serve as an involved faculty member of MB&B. She plans to continue enjoying outdoor hobbies in her free time.

“I would like to walk more. I do like traveling and I do like going to the mountains and hiking in the mountains so I would like to do more of that. So what I am going to do is not feel so much pressure and so much anxiety about ‘is it possible for me to get all of it done?’ Half of it I ought to be able to get done.”

The National Academy of Sciences invited Steitz to serve as a member of a committee which aimed at identifying causes and brainstorming solutions to account for the underrepresentation of women in science. The report, released in 2006, was titled “Beyond bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering.” As Steitz familiarized herself with the clinical terms and meanings of bias, she recognized parallels in her own career, particularly through her own experiences with stereotype threat.

“Stereotype threat is a set of physical and cognitive reactions that any person has – and this has been well-documented – when they feel they are part of an undervalued minority. And you can imagine what happens – your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate goes up. But there’s also a lot of cognitive stuff that’s been documented: that your long-term memory and your short-term memory don’t work as well and you’re not as willing to speak out. And what I realized learning this late was that stereotype threat was what had been happening to me for years and years.  When I was much younger, people would ask me to be on such-and-such a committee and of course I would be the only woman on the committee. There would be fifteen men and me in the room and I wouldn’t dare say anything.  It had all the earmarks of this particular phenomenon. Women in science, a minority by definition, are constantly undergoing stereotype threat. How it manifests itself and what feedback it has on people’s behavior, people’s ability to produce, people’s ability to have confidence in themselves if wanting to go forward to next step. That was my biggest impediment. I was always in a state of being stressed because I was in the minority. I had to do more and had to accomplish more. At least back in the 1990s, when women applied for fellowships, they had to produce twice as many papers as a man in order to succeed.  A lot of those things now have sort of come out and are slowly disappearing, but not fast enough. I was also very lucky in that I think the whole cadre of faculty that came in with me as assistant professors – aside from being all men – were nonetheless very collegial, very understanding, very supportive, very egalitarian. So that was a thing good about MB&B.”

Although there are guidelines from psychologists in the field on how to help people overcome stereotype threat, Steitz doubts it can be overcome easily. She concedes, however, that acknowledging the psychological basis can help mitigate its effects.

“I think knowing about it and realizing why you’re reacting unconsciously the way you do is very helpful because you know you can’t do anything about something you don’t know about. So knowing about it is step number one. That doesn’t mean you’ve cured it.”

MB&B thanks Joan Steitz for her many years of service to the department and to furthering the education of students and contributing to groundbreaking research in the field of RNA.

By Brigitte Naughton