Image of a cell

Joan A. Steitz

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For her major contributions to the basic molecular biology of bacterial and mammalian cells. Her discovery of at least six new components of the cellular machinery is an accomplishment of great distinction in both basic molecular biology and in the clinical treatment of autoimmune disease.

Joan A. Steitz is a leader in the field molecular biology and known for discovering and defining the function of RNA molecules.

Steitz discovered tightly packed proteins in the nucleus of cells, called ribonucleoproteins. Her research showed they are essential for a cell to process instructions from genetic material. She also helped explain how microRNAs are created and processed inside cells.

Steitz also took on a role as an advocate for female equality in scientific research and education. She was the only woman in Harvard’s first class of biochemistry and molecular biology graduate students in 1963. In fact, she didn’t realize the potential for discrimination until she became chairwoman of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale and understood how subjective administrative decisions could negatively impact women in the field.

”Unless you really know what’s going on inside the department, it all looks perfectly reasonable,” Steitz told the New York Times. ”If a woman is a star there aren’t that many problems. If she is as good as the rest of the men, it’s really pretty awful. A woman is expected to be twice as good for half as much.”

By Christine Ayala