Scientist Joan Steitz wins nation’s
largest prize in medicine
Joan Steitz, a pioneer in the study of RNA, is one of the first two women
scientists to receive the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical
Research, America’s largest prize in medicine.
Steitz, who is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry,
will share the $500,000 award with Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of
Now in its eighth year, the Albany Medical Center Prize is the largest prize
in medicine in the United States and the second largest in the world outside
of the Nobel Prize.
Steitz discovered and defined the function of small ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs)
in pre-messenger RNA, the earliest product of DNA transcription. She was the
first to learn that these cellular complexes (snRNPs) play a key role in processing
messenger RNA by excising non-coding regions and splicing together the resulting
segments. This process creates the templates for making proteins.
Her breakthroughs into the previously mysterious splicing process have clarified
the science behind the formation of proteins and other biological processes,
including the intricate changes that occur as the immune system and brain develop.
“Many scientists believe that Dr. Steitz’s research may ultimately
lead to breakthroughs in treating a variety of autoimmune diseases including
lupus,” says James J. Barba, president and chief executive officer of Albany
Medical Center, who chaired the National Selection Committee. “Dr. Steitz
and Dr. Blackburn are among the greatest scientists of our generation. The potential
impact of their research is extraordinary and we all owe them a great debt of
The Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research was established
in the fall of 2000 to encourage and recognize extraordinary and sustained
contributions to improving health care and promoting innovative biomedical
research. It was endowed by a gift of $50 million from the Marty and Dorothy
Silverman Foundation to establish the prize to be given annually for 100 years.
Steitz began her career as a graduate student at Harvard in
the biochemistry and molecular biology graduate program. She earned her Ph.D.
in 1967. After completing postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council
Lab of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she joined the Department of
Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, first as an assistant professor
and later as an associate and full professor. She has also chaired the department.
She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
and the American Academy of Microbiology. She is also a member of the National
Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts
and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.
Steitz also was the Josiah Macy Scholar at the Max Planck Institut fur Biophysikalische
Chemie in Gottingen, Germany, and at the Medical Research Council Laboratory
of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. In addition, she was the Fairchild
Distinguished Fellow at the California Institute of Technology, and is an investigator
of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Her numerous other honors and awards include the Rosalind E. Franklin Award
for Women in Science from the National Cancer Institute, the Gairdner Foundation
International Award, The E.B. Wilson Medal from the American Society for Cell
Biology, the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical
Science, the UNESCO-L’Oréal Award for Women in Science, the First
Weizmann Women & Science Award, the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award
in Biomedical Research and the National Science Foundation Medal of Science.
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