Prize Medal 2021 Q&A – Professor Joan Steitz
30 April 2021
The Microbiology Society Prizes recognise excellence and are awarded to those making significant contributions in the field of microbiology, based on nominations received from our membership. They are awarded at our Annual Conference, where the winners also present their lectures. Ahead of the Prize Medal Lecture 2021: Viral noncoding RNAs: approaching answers, taking place today, Linamaria Pintor Escobar, member of the Society’s Early Career Microbiologists’ Forum, interviewed Professor Joan Steitz to find out more about her work and how it feels to win a Microbiology Society prize.
When did you first become interested in science?
I became interested in science at a very young age and always had the support of my parents, particularly my father. He was a high school guidance counsellor, but he secretly had wanted to be a scientist or an engineer. That wasn't where he ended up, so he was very supportive when he noticed my nascent interest in science.
What do you think sparked your interest in molecular biology and led you to do a PhD in James Watson’s lab at Harvard University?
I had my first introduction to molecular biology during an internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with Alexander Rich. Back then, the whole area of molecular biology was new. It certainly wasn’t in textbooks, and it hadn't even gotten to courses in college. I was already interested in genetics and the new double-stranded structure of DNA, proposed as the molecular basis of heredity, which made me realise that this was the field I wanted to be in. A bit later, I had been admitted to medical school, but Joseph Gall at the University of Minnesota helped me to switch and go for a PhD instead of a medical degree. At Harvard, I was the only woman in my year in a new programme for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. When it was time to choose a supervisor, a very famous professor rejected me for being a woman. Jim Watson was my second choice and working with him was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Can you give us an overview of your research interests throughout your career?
I have always been focused on RNA and its role in living cells. It is a very important molecule and we keep discovering new unexpected functions. I am also very interested in the interactions between RNA molecules and their role in cell regulation. That’s something that we’re just beginning to understand.
What is your lab working on right now?
One part of the lab is working on interactions between the poly(A) tail and upstream RNA, while the other focuses on non-coding RNAs, many made by viruses. We are very interested in understanding why we have poly(A) tails and how they evolved to become such an important part of the whole messenger RNA life cycle.
You’ve been working on RNA for a long time. What would you say are the biggest challenges in the field?
There are still many limitations to the study of interactions between RNA molecules. Technology and bioinformatics still need to improve a lot in areas such as structural prediction of these interactions. I think that’s where the current challenges lie.
What has been your biggest challenge during your career?
I think it is being a mentor of younger women scientists and not knowing if I am doing the right thing or doing enough. I always encourage women to fulfil their potential, but sometimes they make choices shaped by society, culture and stereotypes that stop them from doing what they really want with their lives. We've come a long way in terms of representation of women in academia, but that’s far from being enough.
What do you consider is your biggest academic or professional achievement?
I think having role models is really important and being recognised as one makes me happy. Academically, I think discovering the machinery of splicing and understanding the outline of how it works were my most important achievements. I also must say that one of the most fulfilling things has been to see research from the RNA field having an impact on human health. For instance, the study of inherited diseases associated with the splicing process relies heavily on the fundamental understanding, and I am very proud to have contributed to some of that.
When did you feel you became an independent researcher? How do you encourage independence within your lab?
I was fortunate that already as an undergraduate, during my internship with Joe Gall, I was given my own independent project. At the time he was moving his lab from the University of Minnesota to Yale University and we didn’t see very much of him. Then, in Watson’s lab, graduate students never got told what to do. Whenever we faced a problem in our research, there were always people in the lab and ideas floating around for troubleshooting. Nowadays, I try to take the same approach with my students. Instead of individual meetings, I prefer to establish subgroups of three to five people (undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs) where everybody talks about their progress in the past week and gets communal advice if they had problems with a particular aspect of their research.
How much do you think science and academia have changed for women since you started your career?
When I started, there weren't any women as professors or head of labs in science, and that's quite different now. Of course, there is still more work to do. When you look at faculty rosters, medical schools, research institutions, there aren’t as many women as men. At each step along the way, it's harder for a woman to succeed than it is for a man, and that's unfair. I’m very proud of having worked during my time at Yale with women such as Nancy Andrews (the first woman dean of a US private medical school) and Jennifer Doudna (2020 Nobel Prize winner) who started her career on the faculty at Yale when I was the chair of the department.
You have acknowledged the impact of great mentors in your career. What do you think a great mentor does?
A great mentor encourages people to fulfil their potential and helps mentees to develop the skills they need in order to thrive in the future. Every student is different, and this might be challenging for mentors, but we are always learning from them. I feel particularly challenged by mentoring women because somehow they're more independent than men. My last official graduate student is a woman from Puerto Rico; I’ve learned so much from her.
Your experience as a postdoctoral researcher in the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology enabled you to interact with prominent scientists (e.g. Francis Crick, Sydney Brenner, Frederick Sanger). How did those years impact you as a researcher and mentor?
It was an absolute privilege to be in the presence of these giants of science. The atmosphere at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge was always such that people could freely intermingle. The rule was that everybody interacted and communicated with everybody, and that has inspired my approach to leading my own group. It was a privilege to be there and have the opportunity of learning and building strong friendships.
You have received many awards. Why is this one important for you at this point in your career?
The standards for this award are very high and receiving it is validation or approval of all we have done throughout many years. It also takes me back to reconsidering how important my days at the LMB have been for my entire career.
In 2018 you won the Lasker–Koshland Special Achievement Award and you received $250,000 from that. How did you use that money?
Back at the start of my career, I received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund. A very large fraction of my Lasker Award went to a fund that covers childcare expenses of women recipients of Jane Coffin Childs postdoctoral fellowships. I’m also greatly indebted to my undergraduate institution – Antioch College – for enabling me to find a career in molecular biology; so they received another part of the award. I used the rest to support other scientific institutions that I believe in.
What will you talk about in your prize lecture?
It will be mostly about the work we have just published on the interaction between upstream RNA and poly(A) tails. I will explain the background of the project, the different stages we went through, and the meaning of these findings for the RNA field.
The Prize Medal Lecture 2021: Viral noncoding RNAs: approaching answers, takes place today at the Microbiology Society Annual Conference Online 2021 at 13:00-13:45.
Inspired by our outstanding prize winners? Nominations for 2022 Prize Lectures and the 2023 Prize Medal are now open. Visit the Prize Lecture pages for more information.
Image: Robert Lisak.