Biochemist Joan A. Steitz Named Sterling Professor at Yale

Medical scientist Joan A. Steitz, who is internationally renowned for her contributions to the field of molecular genetics, has been named Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry by vote of the Yale Corporation.

Steitz’s studies have defined the roles of small nuclear ribonucleoprotein particles in RNA processing in mammals. She has focused her research on the structure and function of these cellular complexes, which play a key role in some of the most basic biological processes, converting genetic information into the active protein molecules of the living cell. She discovered the important role of small nuclear ribonucleoproteins – called “snurps” – in the activity of cells. In addition to providing new understanding of the mechanics of gene expression, Steitz’s research also has implications for improved diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases, particularly rheumatic diseases that occur when a person’s own antibodies attack snurps.

A member of the Yale faculty since 1970, Steitz has led the molecular genetics program in the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine and is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Prior to her Yale appointment, she did postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where she worked with Nobel laureate Francis Crick. She earned her B.S. degree in chemistry from Antioch College and her Ph.D. degree from Harvard University, where she worked with another Nobel laureate, James D. Watson. Watson and Crick elucidated the three-dimensional structure of DNA, the genetic material of living organisms.

Steitz was appointed a full professor at Yale in 1978 and became the Henry Ford II Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry in 1992. At Yale, she established a laboratory dedicated to the study of RNA structure and function. She has also been director of the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research, which supports cancer research that postdoctoral fellows conduct throughout the world.

Steitz’s achievements have earned her many honors, including the National Medal of Science and the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award in Biomedical Research. She was the first woman to win the Warren Triennial Prize, which is often described as the “Nobel Prize predictor” because so many of its recipients have gone on to win the latter award, and was also the first woman to be presented Israel’s Weizmann Women & Science Award. Steitz is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.