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05-10-2009

Yale Professor Receives Clarkson University Honorary Degree

[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/steitz.jpg ] 

Joan A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, received an honorary doctor of science degree at Clarkson University's 116th Commencement today.Steitz

The degree was awarded for her "exceptional contributions in the field of molecular biology, most notably for her pioneering research into Ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the role of SNRNPS, small nuclear ribonucleoproteins, in the splicing of messenger RNA, a fundamental cellular process with implications for the treatment of disease and modern drug discovery."

In addressing the Class of 2009, Steitz spoke about her how she came to be involved in research and said that it was unimaginable what would occur in the field of molecular biology in the past half century.

"It was also unimaginable, obviously, that women would ever hold leadership positions in either academia or in science," said Steitz. "Another surprise" was figuring out how important serendipity is in the pursuit of science. Because it was just a chance comment that turned us towards a problem that ended up discovering the snRNPs [small nuclear ribonucleoproteins] that you've heard about, that are critical in all of our cells."

"Life is a great adventure. Find something that really gives you joy. And then embrace it with all your heart and all your creative intellect. I am actually envious of you just starting out on this great journey of discovery."

Steitz earned her B.S. in chemistry from Antioch College in 1963. Significant findings from her work emerged as early as 1967, when her Harvard Ph.D. thesis with Jim Watson examined the test-tube assembly of a ribonucleic acid (RNA) bacteriophage (antibacterial virus) known as R17.

Steitz spent the next three years in postdoctoral studies at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where she used early methods for determining the biochemical sequence of RNA to study how ribosomes know where to initiate protein synthesis on bacterial mRNAs.

In 1970, she was appointed assistant professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale, becoming full professor in 1978. There, she established a laboratory dedicated to the study of RNA structure and function.

In 1979, Steitz and her colleagues described a group of cellular particles called small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs), a breakthrough in understanding how RNA is spliced. Subsequently, her laboratory has defined the structures and functions of other snRNPs, such as those that guide the modification of ribosomal RNAs and several produced by transforming herpesviruses.

She has also been recognized as a "tireless promoter" of women in the sciences, speaking out frequently on the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and advocating the potential of women in academic science and engineering.

Steitz is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. Her many honors include the U.S. Steel Foundation Award in Molecular Biology, the National Medal of Science, the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award, the FASEB Excellence in Science Award, the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award, E.B. Wilson Medal, Gairdner Foundation International Award, Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research, Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame Award, and the New York Academy of Medicine Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Science.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world's pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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