Joan Steitz, Ph.D., Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, has won the 2013 EMD Millipore Alice C. Evans Award. This award is given in honor of Alice C. Evans, who was the first woman elected to be ASM President in 1928, and recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions toward the full advancement of women in microbiology. Jo Handelsman, Yale University, describes Steitz as “a towering figure among women in science. She has had a sustained impact on women through personal contact and advocacy as well as through her efforts to change policies and institutions that hinder their advancement.”
Steitz graduated from Antioch College in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Significant findings from her work emerged as early as 1967, when her Harvard PhD thesis with Jim Watson examined the test-tube assembly of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) bacteriophage (antibacterial virus) known as R17. Over the next three years in postdoctoral studies at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, Steitz used early methods for determining the biochemical sequence of RNA to study how ribosomes know where to initiate protein synthesis on bacterial mRNAs. In 1970, she was appointed assistant professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, and became a full professor in 1978. At Yale, she established a laboratory dedicated to the study of RNA structure and function. In 1979, Steitz and her colleagues described a group of cellular particles called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), a breakthrough in understanding how RNA is spliced. Subsequently, her laboratory has defined the structures and functions of other noncoding RNPs, such as those that guide the modification of ribosomal RNAs, and several produced by transforming herpes viruses. Today, her studies of noncoding RNAs include microRNAs.
According to Judith Voet, Swarthmore College, Steitz “has been outspoken in her support for women in science, exemplified most recently by her participation in the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, which produced in 2006, "Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering," a major report about the status of women in science from the National Academy of Sciences.” Steitz has won numerous honors as a mentor and advocate for women in science, including the L’Oréal Award for Women in Science with the support of UNESCO in 2001, the Weizmann Women and Science Award in 1994, and is recognized in the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Steitz is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. Christine Guthrie, University of California, San Francisco, says that “throughout my career she has been a trusted advisor, whose wisdom and kindness is unsurpassed.” It is with these qualities that make Steitz a worthy recipient of the EMD Millipore Alice C. Evans Award.