The Wolf Prize in medicine was awarded to three scientists—Joan Argetsinger Steitz ’63, Lynne Maquat, and Adrian Krainer—on February 9, 2021, whose research in messenger RNA (mRNA) enabled the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Steitz is Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is a pioneer researcher in ribonucleic acid (RNA)—a molecule similar to DNA. Her discoveries in RNA research now form the foundation of scientists’ knowledge of genetics.
Since 1978, the Wolf Prize in medicine has been awarded once a year by the Wolf Foundation in Israel. Recipients are chosen “for achievements in the interest of mankind,” and receive a $100,000 monetary prize.
In an interview with Yale Daily News, Steitz states that her “interest in science began at a young age,” but growing up in the 20th century meant that she had few female role models in molecular biology. Despite this, Steitz pursued her passion for science at Antioch College, where she was awarded a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. Steitz cites Antioch’s century-old Cooperative Education program for its enduring impact. “The Antioch science Co-ops are what set me on course for my entire career,” she says.
During one of her Co-ops, Steitz was able to spend time working in the laboratory of Alex Rich at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—it was here that Steitz first discovered her interest in molecular biology and genetics. “This was just at the dawn of the era of molecular biology, and discoveries about DNA and genes at the molecular level were so new that they weren’t in any textbook or courses I took,” Steitz says. “But when I got to Alex Rich’s lab and heard about the recently discovered double-stranded DNA, I was completely amazed. It was my time there that fostered my lifelong passion for RNA.”
After graduating from Antioch, Steitz attended Harvard Medical School, completing the doctorate program in biochemistry and molecular biology. As she followed this path, she came in contact with many prominent figures in biology.
In 2018, Steitz received the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science for four decades of leadership in biomedical science. The Lasker awards are sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobels.”
Read more about how Joan Argetsinger Steitz ’63 has dedicated her life to science, overcome barriers, and set a precedent for young people in science on the Yale Daily News website.