Steitz received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and
Molecular Biology (with J.D. Watson) from Harvard
University, did postdoctoral work at the Medical
Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology
(with F. Crick) in Cambridge, England, and has
been on the faculty of Yale University since 1970.
Honors include the Passano Foundation Young Scientist
Award, the Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry,
the U.S. Steel Award in Molecular Biology, the
National Medal of Science, the Dickson Prize for
Science, the Warren Triennial Prize (shared with
T. Cech), the Christopher Columbus Discovery Award
in Biomedical Research, the Weizmann Women and
Science Award, the City of Medicine Award, and
the Novartis-Drew Award for Biomedical Science.
Dr. Steitz is a member of the National Academy
The biomedical revolution started in l953
with the discovery of the structure of DNA, the
genetic material, by Watson and Crick. This led
to the growth of a new discipline called molecular
biology. The resulting development in the mid-1970s
of recombinant DNA spawned the biotechnology industry,
advances in the prevention and treatment of disease
(diagnostic tests, monitoring the blood supply),
genetically modified foods and now the human genome.
Why has this spectacular revolution in understanding
and application occurred primarily in the US rather
than in other nations equally competent in science?
will discuss how diversity both in the structure
of higher education in the US and in the funding
of basic biomedical research has contributed.
The decision of the American government after
World War II to invest in basic research, leading
to the founding of the National Science Foundation
(NSF) and expansion of the National Institutes
of Health (NIH), was certainly key. However, the
non-hierarchical structure of faculties at research
universities (both public and private) and the
disproportionate representation of graduates of
liberal arts colleges (which do not exist elsewhere
in the world) in science are also major factors.
Likewise, the plurality of funding sources that
have supported pursuit-of-knowledge rather than
strategic research goals has been critical. Both
governmental agencies (NIH and NSF) and private
foundations, such as the American Cancer Society
(ACS) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute
(HHMI), have relied on peer review, markedly increasing
the probability of funding truly innovative ideas.
Finally, the American scientist is not a passive
recipient, but much more of an activist engaged
in shaping research policy than scientists elsewhere.