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Faces of Science: Joan Steitz

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Mariana Cook’s book , “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: .

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Faces of Science: Joan Steitz-joan_steitz.jpg
Joan Steitz - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

Science is full of surprises.

I count myself privileged to be a part of the 20th-century revolution in biology. As a college chemistry major in 1961, I was fortunate to learn about the discovery of the double-stranded structure of DNA–even before it appeared in textbooks or was the subject of courses. Its simplicity immediately engaged me. I was fascinated by the possibility that there might be a molecular explanation for the genetic phenomena that I had found so intriguing in high school.

The field of molecular biology that I subsequently entered as a graduate student in 1963 was small and eclectic. It focused exclusively on simple systems such as bacteria and their viruses. The idea was that molecular understanding of life could be achieved only by starting with the most uncomplicated organisms. Investigators bold enough to work on higher cells were even derided as wasting their time on something that was too complex to be understood.

It was therefore unimaginable that would happen in biology within my lifetime. Although I watched the step-by-step progression, I still find it amazing that we now know the sequence of the four billion base pairs of the human genome. In contrast, one of my co-graduate students in 1968 wrote his entire thesis on determining the sequence of a single base (at one end of a bacterial virus genome)! Also unimaginable were the far-reaching implications the revolution in biology would have–for medicine, in spawning a multibillion-dollar biotech industry, even for forensics.

It was likewise unimaginable that women would hold important positions in science and academia. When I was a graduate student, there were no women professors at major research universities. Women expected, as I did, to become research associates working the laboratory of a kindly male mentor. Today, I am fortunate to have women colleagues who face challenges similar to mine at universities both in the United States and around the world.

A final surprise is that it is almost as much fun to share the joy of discovery with a talented younger colleague as to make the discovery oneself. I have been privileged to attract to my laboratory a number of extremely bright and creative students, at the undergraduate and graduate as well as at postdoctoral levels. They, along with my mentors, colleagues, and family, are responsible for my picture’s appearing in this collection.