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.
LC: I wanted to ask, with one of the leaders of scientific publication innovation on the line, in my neck of the woods there’s a new journal popping up called the Yale Undergraduate Research Journal and I wanted to present it’s structure to you, and maybe you can provide some insight or some advice. Does that sound alright?
(photo from https://vcresearch.berkeley.edu/news/berkeley-talks-nobel-laureate-randy-schekman-new-parkinsons-research, taken by Elena Zhukova)
LC: So I heard that a way you motivate people in your lab is a bulletin board in your lab with major landmark and major achievements on it that you’re shooting for. I was wondering if this board is still literally or figuratively in place and what your modern or current research goals are.
RS: Well I would say one of the dramatic changes has been in the career options for someone studying biomedical science, generally biology, life science. When I started in graduate school in 1970 there was only one career option really--as an academic that was my intention and all of my classmates expected to do the same. There were of course in other disciplines, in chemistry there were positions in industry, but that just wasn’t an option in cell and molecular biology.
(Image from https://www.mediatheque.lindau-nobel.org/nobellabs/37960/randy-schekman)
I’m also curious, what are the challenges of starting out a career in science and getting established within the community of science as an institution to the point where your grant proposals, they no longer say “We don’t think you can do this”?
LC: So as I run out of time I wanted to poke you on one last thing that I saw in an interview. This one is translated from German by Google so you’ll have to forgive me if this is not exactly what you said, but it’s in Der Standard. You were talking about the differences between American and European society and you said “Yes, faith is still very important in our country. It gives meaning to peoples’ lives. I was also raised religiously but it just wasn’t for me. Religion doesn’t help me with the big questions of humanity--after death, suffering, and love.”
I think often what happens when you’re an assistant professor is they’ll hire you and the senior people in the department want to take care of you and want you to be successful so they either will try to protect you from teaching or they will give you upper level teaching courses where you are able to teach the latest, hottest, new stuff to upperclassmen or graduate students. That’s something that happens, and it happened to me...
(Image from the UND archives: https://hesburghportal.nd.edu/story-dedication-protests)
LC: So there’s this footnote on your wikipedia page that says you signed the 2007 petition to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. And I also know from your Nobel Prize Bio that you applied for conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War. It seems like you have a little bit of an eye for social issues as well. Can you tell me how you got involved with the petition to repeal the LSEA, and are there any other initiatives that you find of particular importance?
LC: You mentioned in another earlier interview that one of the things you want to do as a scientist is join this sort of community and club of scientists, where people want to hear about your work and people want to talk to you because you’ve done interesting science. And I wonder whether, now that you’re an official part of this club of high-tier scientists and Ivy League professors, have you met any super cool people? What is that club like?