Pearl Meister Greengard Prize to be awarded to pioneering RNA researcher Joan Steitz

Joan A. Steitz, a pioneer in the field of RNA biology whose discoveries involved patients with a variety of autoimmune diseases, will be awarded the 2012 Pearl Meister Greengard Prize from The Rockefeller University. The prize, which honors female scientists who have made extraordinary contributions to biomedical science and carries an honorarium of $100,000, will be presented at a ceremony on Thursday, November 29 at Rockefeller University’s Caspary Auditorium.

The Pearl Meister Greengard Prize was established by Paul Greengard, Vincent Astor Professor at Rockefeller University and head of the Laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, and his wife, sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard. Dr. Greengard donated the proceeds of his 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Rockefeller University and, in partnership with generous supporters of the university, created the annual award named in memory of Greengard’s mother, who died giving birth to him. Since 2004, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize has recognized female scientists who have made exceptional contributions to biomedical science, a group that historically has not received appropriate recognition and acclaim.

photo: Michael Marsland, Yale University

“Joan Steitz, in addition to being a leader in the field of RNA biology, has been a role model for young women seeking careers in biomedical research,” says Dr. Greengard. “Her success, in the face of gender discrimination early in her career, exemplifies the spirit of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.”

“Any recognition that calls attention to women’s accomplishments in science is important for the future participation of women,” says Dr. Steitz. “I am deeply honored to be a recipient of the Greengard Prize.”

Dr. Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is best known for discovering and defining the function of RNA-protein complexes called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), which occur only in the cells of higher organisms. These cellular complexes play a key role in the splicing of pre-messenger RNA, the earliest product of DNA transcription. Both DNA and pre-messenger RNA typically contain numerous nonsense segments called “introns.” Working in the nucleus, snRNPs cut the introns from pre-mRNA and splice together the resulting segments, which together make up messenger RNA.

Dr. Steitz’s research may yield new insights into the diagnosis and treatment of lupus, an autoimmune disease that develops when patients make antibodies against their own DNA, snRNPs, or ribosomes, the body’s protein-making factories. She and her colleagues are also studying other snRNPs involved in excising a rare, divergent class of introns and still other snRNPs involved in pre-ribosomal RNA processing.

Dr. Steitz earned her B.S. in chemistry from Antioch College in 1963. She became the sole woman in a class of 10 to begin graduate studies in biochemistry and molecular biology at Harvard, and the first female graduate student to work under Jim Watson’s guidance after another male professor questioned her aspirations for a Ph.D. because she was a woman. During postdoctoral studies at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, she used early methods to determine RNA sequences where ribosomes initiate protein synthesis on bacterial mRNAs. She was appointed assistant professor at Yale in 1970, where her laboratory has been dedicated to studying RNA structure and function. In 1979, Dr. Steitz and her colleagues described snRNPs, the building blocks of the spliceosome. Her laboratory has defined the structures and functions of other noncoding ribonucleoproteins, including several produced by transforming herpesviruses.

She has received numerous accolades for her work, including the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the UNESCO-L’Oreal Award for Women in Science and the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, and she received the National Medal of Science in 1986. Since 2007, she has served as a member of the Rockefeller University’s Committee on Scientific Affairs, a committee that advises the President and the Board of Trustees on all scientific matters.

Dr. Steitz was chosen as the 2012 recipient of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize by the selection committee of ten jurors, of which five are Nobel Laureates. The members of the selection committee included: Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Rockefeller University; Torsten N. Wiesel, chair and Nobel Laureate; Richard Axel, Nobel Laureate; Cori Bargmann; Günter Blobel, Nobel Laureate; Titia de Lange; Joseph L. Goldstein, Nobel Laureate; Philippa Marrack, 2005 recipient of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize; Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate; and David D. Sabatini.

Oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, will present the prize to Dr. Steitz at the ceremony in November. Dr. Earle has been called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and the first “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine. Dr. Earle has led more than 60 expeditions and logged more than 6,000 hours underwater, including leading the first team of women aquanauts during the Tektite Project in 1970 and setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000 meters. Her research concerns marine ecosystems with special reference to exploration and the development and use of new technologies for access and effective operations in the deep sea and other remote environments.

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