Lining a shelf in the office of Joan A. Steitz, Ph.D., is a row of champagne bottles, each label signed in a rite of passage by graduate students when they completed their doctoral work in Steitz’s lab, almost all of whom moved on to faculty positions or careers in industry. It may seem unremarkable to today’s students that the bottles added from recent years are signed by roughly equal numbers of women and men, but Steitz knows that the labels carrying women’s signatures mark just the beginning of a challenging road.
“There weren’t any women doing this sort of thing when I was being educated,” says Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and one of the world’s foremost authorities on RNA biology. In the early 1960s, when she received her undergraduate degree in chemistry women in science almost always worked as research associates, not faculty members, she says, so she planned to attend Harvard Medical School after college—to become a physician instead of a scientist.
But the summer before she was to start, Steitz worked in the cell biology lab of Joseph G. Gall, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota (a Yale alumnus, Gall would later join Yale’s faculty), and “got so excited about it that I decided I wanted to continue doing research and discovering how things work. I didn’t care if I was ever in a position that the men would be in.”
In 1963, Steitz entered Harvard’s graduate program in biochemistry and molecular biology, the sole woman in a class of 10. She recalls that when she approached a scientist about doing her thesis research in his lab, which did similar work to that she did in Minnesota, “he said, ‘But you’re a woman, you’ll get married, you’ll have kids, and what good will all this education be then?’”
So Steitz got her “second choice,” as the first female graduate student in the lab of James D. Watson, Ph.D., who had just shared the Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Though Watson was known to fancy “cute girls,” she says, when it came to science “he judged people purely on the basis of what they could contribute, regardless of gender.”
When Steitz moved on, to a postdoctoral position at Cambridge University, one of the “big, burning questions” in molecular biology was how the cell’s protein-making machinery determines where on a strand of messenger RNA (mRNA) to begin translating its message into proteins.
The lab’s other postdocs, all men, shied away from this problem because the probability of obtaining an answer, especially in two years’ time, was slim. “I’m never going to have a job anyhow,” Steitz recalls thinking, so she took it on. She soon had the answer, which she published in a now-classic 1969 paper in the journal Nature.
Steitz did “get a job”—at the School of Medicine in 1970, where she has since accumulated a long list of accomplishments. Notable among them was her 1979 discovery of snRNPs (“snurps”), RNA–protein complexes crucial to the proper splicing of mRNA.
Steitz, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1986, acknowledges that she had “good timing”: the women’s movement of the 1970s brought women into many fields that had been dominated by men. But she also credits molecular biology’s embrace of “open, adventuresome, trailblazing” people in her success. “RNA,” she says, “has been a very good field for women.”