Scientific Discoveries, Support Of Women Win Yale's Joan Steitz A 2018 Lasker Award

Yale University researcher Joan Argetsinger Steitz, a leading pioneer in the field of genetics and lifelong advocate for gender equity in the sciences, has received the 2018 Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

The award, one of the most esteemed prizes in biomedicine, was announced Tuesday by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. It carries an honorarium of $250,000 and will be presented Friday in New York City.

Steitz, 77, has spent her career exploring RNA processing — how cells send and receive the messages needed to perform most of the basic tasks of life. Her first breakthrough in 1968 redefining the study of RNA biology still yields promising clues today into the development of life-saving drugs.

Through it all, Steitz worked to break down the barriers she'd faced as a girl who liked chemistry and biology, a woman who wanted to work, and finally, a female scientist determined to run her own lab.

“I guess I’ve always felt that you've had to be better overall than the men and that's true of all women, I think,” Steitz said in an interview with the Lasker Foundation. “And that’s going to be true as long as that fraction isn’t 50-50. And that’s not fair and that's where we need to be fighting.”

Thirteen years ago, she co-wrote a National Academy of Sciences report titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.”

It was a call to action for institutions across the country to recognize the systemic limitations placed on women, the prevalence of unconscious bias, and the need to forge a future that was fair and inclusive.

For years, Steitz has routinely mentored female students and researchers alike on the prejudices they’re likely to encounter, and how to advance despite them.

Steitz’s support of scientific work also extends beyond women, to include all young scientists.

In her own lab, she’s often forgone ego and removed her name from papers her postdoctoral researchers completed independent of her.

Of the 360 papers to leave her lab, 60 are absent Steitz’s name.

She also served as chair of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for more than a decade, helping deliver funds to young postdoctoral researchers studying cancers and other life-threatening disorders.

“I hope to have made a reasonable contribution to the science that I love and be known as a reasonable person," Steitz told the foundation. “What more can I say?”

In the early days of her career, Steitz earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University under Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, and worked in the lab of his partner, Francis Crick, at the University of Cambridge in England.

It was there she identified a class of molecule called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins — or snRNPs — that act as dispatchers for RNA messengers, which carry bundles of genetic information with the instructions for building new proteins.

The snRNPs edit down these messages to create precise instructions for each cell. After years, Steitz not only cracked how those snRNPs worked, a pivotal discovery in the field of genetics, but she explored the relationship between those particles and the immune system.

She went on to win the National Medal of Science in 1986, earned honorary doctorates at Princeton, Brown, Columbia and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and, in 2014, earned membership in the Royal Society of London, a scientific academy founded in London in 1660.

The Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University was also inducted into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame in 2008, and won the Connecticut Medal of Science, the state's highest science honor, in 2015.

Steitz was one of four scientists recognized by Lasker on Tuesday.

Michael Grunstein, of UCLA, and C. David Allis, of Rockefeller University, received the basic research prize for investigating the histone, a type of protein that packages and orders DNA.

The structures that histones form are key players in not only gene expression, but in inherited diseases and tumor development.

John B. Glen, a Scottish veterinary-anesthesiologist, won the Lasker clinical award for developing propofol, the induction anesthesia.

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