"I had absolutely no role models because there
weren't any. I never saw a woman faculty member in science after
I graduated from a girl's high school."
Scientist Joan Steitz
As an undergraduate student in the 1960s, Joan Steitz loved
science — but she never imagined going into the field,
let alone becoming one of the top scientists in the United States.
At that time, there were no women on science faculties at any
university, she said.Any women who were working in the scientific field were associates
in other people's labs, taking orders from men.
"It didn't even cross my mind that it was something I would
want to do because it just wasn't done. I had absolutely no
role models because there weren't any. I never saw a woman faculty
member in science after I graduated from a girl's high school."
So Steitz decided to go into medicine because she knew a couple
of female physicians and concluded that was something women
Fortunately, the summer before medical school, she got a job
working in a lab with cell biologist Joseph Gall, who gave her
a project to pursue on her own.
"All of a sudden I got completely turned on," she
said. "I decided even if I wasn't ever going to be able
to do this like all the men professors I'd known, that this
was what I wanted to do, pursue science. It really, really got
me and I couldn't believe how much fun it was making discoveries."
On Wednesday, Steitz, now a researcher at the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute and the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine
at Yale University, will be announced as one of five winners
of this year's Gairdner International Awards, one of the most
prestigious prizes in all of science.
Sixty-five of the 279 Gairdner winners have gone on to win
the Nobel Prize since the awards were introduced in 1959 by
the foundation set up by Toronto businessman James Gairdner.
"Dr. Steitz is one of the most distinguished molecular
biologists of her time and has been an outstanding role model
to scientists and students everywhere," said Dr. John Dirks,
president of the Gairdner Foundation. "I count her as a
personal hero in her field."
Steitz, 65, is being honoured for her pioneering work in RNA,
a field she began pursuing at Harvard as the sole female graduate
student in biochemistry and molecular biology.She is known for discovering and defining the function of small
nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which may lead to breakthroughs
in treating such autoimmune diseases as lupus.
Scientists discovered in 1977 that pre-messenger RNA contains
stretches of nonsense called introns that interrupt the coding
parts of genes.
Everybody knew something strange was going on but nobody had
figured it out or predicted it," she recalled. "Finally,
evidence began coming in from all over the world and scientists
said `wow, that's what's going on.' We have these big segments
of junk in the middle of our genes."
That nonsense has to get removed in order to make messenger
RNA that codes for proteins in cells, she said.
"Then the question was `how do you get this junk out?'
Cells have to have a mechanism for removing the junk to make
a message you can read in linear sequence according to the genetic
code and make a protein.
"What cellular machinery is there to do that? What it
has to do is recognize the boundaries between the junk and the
good stuff very precisely and somehow enable the cell to clip
out the junk, throw it out and put back together the good bits
to be made into protein."
What Steitz discovered was that these little snRNP particles
recognize those boundaries, cut out the junk and put the good
parts back together.
Part of the reason the discovery was so important, she said,
was that it explained how humans are able to have only about
five times more genes than bacteria do.
"The reason we can get away with so few genes is that when
you have these bits of nonsense, you can splice them out in
different ways," she said. "Sometimes you can get
rid of things and add things because of this splicing process
so that each gene has slightly different protein products that
can do slightly different things. So it multiplies up the information
content in each of our genes."
The discovery came about by an unusual marriage of science
and medicine. In autoimmune diseases like lupus, people make
antibodies against their own cellular components and against
these snRNPs. Steitz took antibodies from these patients to
discover what was in snRNPs and about how they work. Now, they
are being used in reverse for diagnosis and prognosis of those
diseases, although no treatment has yet been found.
That falls into another realm of scientific exploration, cellular
immunology, "which I firmly believe is where treatments
for these problems are going to come from in future," she
The discovery ties into cancer research as well because defects
in the splicing process give rise to cells making proteins that
aren't quite right, which can lead to the uncontrolled growth
of cells that is central to cancer.
"So it's basic to all sorts of diseases," she said.
"In about 15 to 20 per cent of human disease genes, the
mutations affect the splicing of a particular message that makes
an important protein for one process or another. What's gone
wrong is that the splicing doesn't work because of a mutation
in the boundaries between the junk and the sense stuff so snRNPs
don't recognize it properly."
Steitz runs a lab of more than 20 people, including 16 graduate
and undergraduate students and, in the summer, even high school
students. She makes sure all of them are in charge of their
own projects, "even if it's very simple, to get them hooked
on how much fun it is. It's very valuable for the future and
for getting women into science."
She's also involved internationally in projects aimed at removing
the barriers and hidden biases that keep women out of the scientific
She's married to another Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator,
Thomas Steitz, a professor of biophysics and biochemistry at
Yale, whom she met while both were students at Harvard. They
have one son who majored in science at Yale, played baseball
for the Milwaukee Brewers for three years and now has veered
off to Yale Law School.
She calls the Gairdner, which comes with a $30,000 prize, "a
very prestigious award. I'm very, very honoured." She will
speak about her work at a public luncheon Wednesday at Stop
33 at the Sutton Place Hotel at noon. Tickets can be purchased
at the door for $45.