This past July, McGill’s Department of Biochemistry hosted one of the most prominent female figures in the biological sciences: Dr Joan Steitz. Having been invited repeatedly over the past 13 years, the seminar finally took place in room 1034 of the McIntyre Building. The seminar saw a very big turn-out, including most of the biochemistry faculty members and graduate students from various departments in the life sciences.
Dr Joan Steitz walked in with an air of confidence and a general disposition of compassion. She was dressed in an elegant suit of sky blue and gray; hair beautifully coiffed up in a timeless updo and a naturally glowing complexion. The screen flashed with the title of her talk: “Non-coding RNAs with a viral twist”. For the next hour, Steitz discussed her current research and findings on how non-coding RNAs in the genome play an important role in viral infections and proliferation, specifically, the gamma-herpesvirus.
After her talk, Steitz took a few questions from the audience. None of the posers were women – an observation that was not unprecedented; I simply had to bring this up with Steitz during the lunch interview. Being one of the first few women to graduate from Harvard’s Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program in the male-dominated years of the 1960’s, Steitz is known as a tireless supporter of the cause of women in science. She ventured a positive remark, stating that the situation remains far better at McGill than in many science departments at other universities.
Despite the significant change in culture and advancements in technology, the fact remains that there still aren’t many women in science. Steitz suggested this might be due to unconscious bias, even in subtle tones. Small inadvertent comments can end up having rounded cumulative effects, leading to discouragement. The problem is aggravated by the higher tendency of women to worry too much about their future, namely those who are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. More importantly, women tend to engage in self-doubt a lot more than their male counterparts, leading them to question their abilities and performance.
One way to combat this, pointed out Steitz, is to go through the progression and natural flow of an academic career without comparing oneself to those who are ahead in the field. Comparison is often unfair and leads to unnecessary discouragement.
Steitz’ own progression in science began after graduating from Antioch College in 1963 with a BSc in chemistry. She then got accepted into Harvard Medical School but decided to turn down the offer in pursuit of research in basic science. During a summer stint in a lab when she was but an undergraduate, Steitz did some technician work and data gathering. It wasn’t until she acquired her own project that everything changed: “Suddenly, it seemed worthwhile working nights and days”, she described the feeling. This first project – under the supervision of the notable cell biologist Joseph Gall – involved answering the question of whether there were DNA and RNA in basal bodies in the cells. Since DNA was also found in mitochondria, could it also exist in other cellular compartments? A paper that came out of this project granted Steitz her big break into scientific research.
“I knew I really liked doing science!”
With that, Steitz fearlessly leaped into the field despite having no female role models in science at the time. Consequently, she enrolled in James Watson’s lab as his first female graduate student. Her first graduate project involved bacteriophage RNA. James Watson, co-discoverer of the double-stranded winded helix of DNA; an icon for many famous research institutes; retired chancellor of Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories; a noble laureate, has been known for a tough work ethic and having high expectations of those he works with. Steitz described working with him as “interesting”, with a light-hearted laugh and smirk.“The lab was a very exciting place when all initiation factors and protein synthesis were being discovered. DNA was formulated; tRNAs could suppress nonsense codons”. From Steitz’ perspective, Watson is a very fair person and assess people on a basis of whether they have potential to make real contributions to science. “Once on his good side, one has all sorts of opportunities”.
Following her PhD, Steitz conducted her Postdoctoral fellowship at Medical Research Council (MRC) in Cambridge, where she began to discover the intricate mechanisms of RNA translation by binding to ribosomes in bacteria. In 1975 she published the famous paper about ribosomes binding to mRNA via base complementarity, following it with the important discovery of snRNP’s in 1980.
In terms of her relationships, Steitz has papers published in liaison with her husband, Thomas Steitz, a structural biologist and Nobel laureate at Yale University. She was quoted in an article saying that it has been helpful to have a husband in science who understands and goes through the same frustrations and feelings of rewards. “When I need a crystallographer, he’s a readily available source!” Steitz commented on their professional relationship.
Next, we discussed her relationships with students in her lab. Common questions that always arise when meeting a prominent figure in science include what kind of qualities they look for in people they hire. Successful candidates in Steitz’ perspective are individuals who are really passionate about science; who can take information from different inputs and put them together to come up with interesting ideas. In short: creativity, innovation and good people skills that flourish to provide good chemistry in the lab. Although she did not comment on how tough or lenient she is as a supervisor, she simply stated that she believes in giving guidance to students – a sentiment that should echo with other scientists as well.
When asked about the pressures of publishing, she commented that she hasn’t experienced any but that it’s bound to increase nowadays since more people are partaking in health research. Funding was also easier to secure a few decades ago; in fact, researchers “never even had to think twice about it”.
Later in the day, while I was walking the hallways on the 4th floor of Bellini, I saw Steitz leaving the building while engaging in what was probably her favorite pastime: having an intelligent conversation with a fellow scientist. I smiled with the recollection of the valuable wisdom she imparted on how women (and men even) in science should change their attitudes about themselves. “If you really love doing science and you really want to do it, you’ll figure out a way to do it. And don’t worry too much about the future. Look at people who are one step beyond you and see if that’s what you like doing”. In other words (or the Brits’): Keep Calm and Research On.
[To learn more about Dr Steitz’ fascinating research in a colorful way, check out this video that simplifies complex biological concepts involved in Dr Steitz’ research. Bonus: The video stars Dr Joan Steitz herself! (Unfortunately, our platform could not support the embedding of the YouTube video.)]