Joan Steitz theorizes that her father encouraged her to pursue science because he secretly wished he had become a scientist instead of a high school guidance counselor. By the time she got to college at Antioch, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. She began majoring in chemistry before the discovery of double stranded DNA was in textbooks.
Her parents believed in the importance of getting experience in the field of your future career, so she took various lab technician and research assistant positions. From one of these, she got a position in Alex Rich’s lab at MIT over the summer where she tried to denature and renature ribosomes (which the biologists out there might know sadly did not work). This was also where she first learned about the discovery of double stranded DNA.
Having never seen a women scientist or head of lab, but having witnessed many women physicians, she applied to medical school. The summer before she was to enter Harvard medical school, however, she worked in the lab of Joe Gall (sometimes called “the Father of Cell Biology”) where she was given her own project. By August she was so engaged by designing and running experiments on her own (in this case trying to determine if the ciliary bodies of Tetrahymena have DNA or RNA in them), she decided she wanted to pursue a PhD.
Having met James Watson in Alex Rich’s Lab at MIT, she had a connection to ask if she could switch to the PhD program. She soon entered the new program called Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She approached a famous biologist at Harvard to ask about entering his lab, but was asked what good a PhD would do her once she got married and had kids. Watson, her second choice said yes and made her the first female graduate student in the Watson lab.
At the time there were only about 50 molecular biology labs in the world, all in tight collaboration. It was then that the basics of protein synthesis, DNA replication, and RNA transcription were all in the works. After great mentorship by Watson in graduate school, Steitz did her postdoc at Cambridge in the department headed by Francis Crick and Syndey Brenner (both eventual Nobel Prize Winners). She picked up a project many had rejected as too challenging, not expecting to need to apply for faculty positions later as was uncommon for women at the time. During her postdoc, she went on to discover the three start codons for protein synthesis.
Following, she spent half a year at UC Berkeley where her husband, eventual Nobel Prize Winner Thomas Steitz, had accepted a position. When they inquired about a position for Joan Steitz, they were told that the wives of professors were generally research associates. However, Joan Steitz had a number of offers to be an assistant professor, including one at Yale. She and her husband came in 1970 to a new department called Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry (MB&B), where she has remained a professor since researching the world of noncoding RNAs.
Joan Steitz is a Sterling Professor of MB&B at Yale, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, a recipient of the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science, a Royal Society of London Member, and the recipient of 17 honorary doctorate degrees as of 2017. More about her career and science can be heard in her School of Medicine Perspectives of Women in Science Lecture, on her Yale faculty page, or from her publications listed here.