Joan Argetsinger Steitz, a scientist known for her pivotal discoveries about cell biology—and for her efforts to encourage women in science and engineering—has netted one of this year’s Lasker Awards, an accolade sometimes referred to as the “American Nobel.”
The New York City–based Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced Tuesday morning it will confer the prize for special achievement in medical science on Steitz, a biochemist at Yale University who led work uncovering the details of “splicing”—a process in which noncoding information is removed from cells so that RNA can be translated into protein. She also discovered tiny particles essential to that process, called small ribonucleoproteins, or snRNPs, pronounced “snurps.” (For more details about splicing and snRNPs, see Steitz’s 1988 Scientific American article.)
The Lasker Foundation also recognized molecular biologists Michael Grunstein and C. David Allis for their basic medical research on histones—the spool-like structures around which DNA wraps itself—and for improving science’s understanding of how genes are expressed and controlled. John Glen, a retired researcher who lives in Cheshire, England, received the foundation’s clinical medical research award for his work developing the anesthesia drug propofol, a staple in modern surgery.
Steitz, who has advocated for greater gender diversity in science and co-authored a 2005 National Academy of Sciences report on bias and other barriers to women in “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), spoke with Scientific American about her career, the #MeToo movement and working with James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
RNA seems to be having a moment recently. There’s greater recognition of this molecule’s role in various diseases, and also possible applications for RNA-based therapeutics. What has surprised you the most?
It’s the diversity—the number and the different roles that RNA plays in cells—which is absolutely mind-boggling. With the therapeutics, the thing that is surprising there is that there was a phase, for about 10 years, when people did a lot of work on how to get an RNA molecule into a cell. And through that whole era my concern was that—even though we thought RNA had this potential—there would be a huge barrier getting it into cells, and that would stop everything dead in its tracks. But that hasn’t been the case! Cells love to take up RNA, even quite large molecules, and it is done amazingly efficiently.
Can you talk briefly about your pioneering RNA work? What do you consider your most notable work?
It has to be the discovery of snRNPs, and their role in splicing. These are little particles inside cells that act by taking the RNA, made by the DNA, and clipping out parts of it, putting the rest back together, and making a messenger RNA that can then be converted into proteins by the cell. Discovering the cellular machinery for that has to be what I consider my lab’s greatest contribution.
One of the things the Lasker Foundation said it admires is that, of the 360 papers that have come out of your lab, 60 list only your students—not yourself—as co-authors. That’s very uncommon. Can you tell me more about that?
It didn’t used to be so rare. I’m old enough that I remember an era where, at least in molecular biology—which was a new field in the 1960s—everybody knew what everybody else was doing. So you didn’t need to put the lab runner’s name on the paper in order to know where the paper came from. Part of that heritage is that now I feel sort of badly every time I have to put my name on student papers. But I have to do it now, because otherwise people don’t know where it came from. It’s only when students do things truly independently—they came into the lab with their idea, and really all I provided was the bench and maybe a bit of support funds—that I don’t put my name on it nowadays, but that situation seems to be rarer and rarer.
What advice would you give to students who may be considering a career in science?
Always put yourself in the most challenging position you are capable of dealing with, because that’s the way you stretch yourself and grow the most.
You were the first female grad student to work with James Watson. What was that like?
It wasn’t that there weren’t any women in the lab. There were lots of women in the lab, because Jim fervently believed that if men had attractive women around, they would want to come to the lab and get more done. There were always, especially in the summertime, a lot of undergrad women technicians in the lab. If you read his books, you are horrified by some of the things he says that seem so misogynist you can’t believe anyone would say those things. But when it comes to judging people in science, he judged them by what he believed they could contribute to science. He came up with assessments too quickly—and probably unfairly—if people would be positive contributors or not. And, if you made it onto the contributor list, it didn’t matter what sex you were or what color your skin was—what was important was your contribution to science. Somehow, I came up on that positive list early on. Jim, for me, has always been a very encouraging and inspiring mentor.
How can individual researchers like yourself help combat sexual harassment?
As an academic, one is pretty helpless to try to fight against university machines and university politics, so I don’t really know. Groups of people have gotten together and written very straightforward letters to the people that matter, and that doesn’t seem to help. You can’t go on strike because that hurts your students, trainees, department and everything else that is being in and doing science, so it’s an excellent question.
What do you think has fueled the “#MeToo” moment that has finally allowed women and men to come forward to talk about deplorable behavior in the lab and elsewhere?
There’s a lot going on in society, and I think it certainly makes an impact on people’s attitudes about what they are seeing in their own daily lives—so I think it’s hopefully a cultural move in the right direction that won’t get swamped by other things that are going on politically. I think it’s high time that it’s recognized, and I’m sort of surprised that it has taken so long, but cultural shifts do take decades. It’s not consoling, I know, but it’s a statement of fact.