Yale’s Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of Biophysics and Biochemistry and mentor to generations of women scientists, is the recipient of the 2018 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.
The Lasker Foundation cited Steitz’s pioneering role in expanding our understanding of RNA biology and her lifelong advocacy for inclusion of women in the sciences in its Sept. 11 announcement.
The award was one of the three announced by the foundation Tuesday. The Lasker Awards are among the most prestigious prizes given in medicine and recognize the contributions of leaders who made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease. Each award carries a $250,000 honorarium.
Steitz’s career has spanned four decades of breakthrough advances in molecular biology and, more recently, of promoting women in science. The Minneapolis native was a pioneer in the study of RNA, which she began a decade after James Watson and Francis Crick made their groundbreaking discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Watson and Joseph Gall, then at the University of Minnesota, were instrumental in convincing Steitz to forego medical school and follow her passion to work as a research scientist at a time when few women were involved in research.
“I was very lucky to have people who had confidence in my ability to make meaningful contributions,” Steitz said.
Understanding the double helix structure of DNA allowed scientists to begin studying single-stranded RNA, the messenger that carries instructions to ribosomes to produce proteins, which carry out most of life’s functions. Working as a postdoctoral researcher with renowned scientists, such as Crick and Sydney Brenner at the University of Cambridge, Steitz showed how bacterial RNA binds to ribosomes and triggers the cells’ protein-making machinery.
In subsequent decades, research in the labs of Steitz and others revealed the crucial biological role played by small pieces of RNA that do not code for proteins. For instance at Yale in the 1980s, Steitz’s lab discovered that tiny snippets of RNA called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) play a central role in splicing, a key step in the expression of genes. The finding helped fuel an explosion of knowledge about the key roles played by small non-coding RNAs in a host of biological functions and disease.
“No one could have envisioned these discoveries four decades ago, the advances have been astounding,” she said.
Throughout her career, Steitz has advocated for inclusion of more women in the sciences, and she co-authored a 2006 report for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) outlining barriers to the participation of women in sciences. For a decade she also led the Jane Coffin Childs Fund, which grants postdoctoral fellowships to early career researchers.
She also has strongly endorsed a recent NAS study that calls for tougher measures by universities against those who harass women scientists.
Steitz is married to Nobel laureate Thomas Steitz, who was honored for his work describing the structure of ribosomes. She and other Lasker recipients are scheduled to receive their awards Sept. 21 in New York City.
About the Lasker Foundation
The Lasker Foundation seeks to increase support for biomedical research by celebrating the power of biomedical science to save and improve human lives. Through its internationally renowned Lasker Awards, educational initiatives, and public advocacy, the foundation recognizes the most important achievements in science and public service, supports and encourages the scientific leaders of tomorrow, and raises awareness of the ever-present need for research funding. Established in 1942 by Albert and Mary Lasker, the foundation is committed to inspiring robust and sustained support for biomedical research, fueled by Mary Lasker’s call to action: “If you think research is expensive, try disease!”
About the Lasker Awards
For 73 years, the Lasker Awards, America’s most prestigious biomedical research awards, have recognized the contributions of leaders who made major advances in the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of human disease. Recipients of the Lasker Medical Research Awards are selected by a distinguished international jury chaired by Joseph L. Goldstein, recipient of the 1985 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Eighty-seven Lasker laureates have received the Nobel Prize, including 40 in the last three decades. More details on the Lasker Award recipients, the full citations for each award category, video interviews and photos of the awardees, and additional information on the foundation are available at the Lasker Foundation website. Follow the awards on Facebook and Twitter.