Yale News

Joan Steitz, Sterling Professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, donated her award money from the Wolf Prize to start an RNA Scholars Program within the Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine.

Last February, Steitz was one of three recipients of the prestigious Wolf Prize for her work on RNA. This award is given to scientists for their “achievements in the interest of mankind,” according to the prize’s website. Her share of the award money, approximately $33,000, will be used to create and maintain a Yale RNA Scholars Program dedicated to supporting junior researchers interested in exploring RNA.

“I was an undergraduate when I was first introduced to both DNA and RNA,” Steitz said in an interview with the News. “Somehow, I have worked on RNA ever since, because I found it much more fascinating than DNA. At the time I started, we knew about messenger RNA, tRNA and ribosomal RNA, and that was it. Now, RNA is a very exciting field.”

Steitz’s donation to support RNA research at Yale is especially timely given messenger RNA’s recent popularity as the major component in the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, according to Steitz, her findings have contributed to the development of Pfizer and Moderna’s messenger RNA vaccines.

Upon receiving the award, she decided to use the money to give back to the Yale community but was not sure how to maximize the impact of her donation. Karla Neugebauer, director of the Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine and a professor of molecular biochemistry and biophysics, suggested to Steitz the creation of a mentorship program that would support a cohort of budding scientists.

“This is a great step towards inclusion, because it is not about picking just one person,” Neugebauer said. “It is about picking a cohort of people who we want to promote and helping strengthen their network.”

Each year, a committee will select three students — one undergraduate student, one graduate student and one postdoctoral student — to join the RNA Scholars Program, according to Neugebauer. These scholars will then be invited to attend meetings and other social events with influential RNA researchers and future alumni of the program. Steitz said that the goal is to create a space for a group of brilliant RNA researchers to come together and help each other.

“[Steitz] is a miracle worker at enabling young scientists to achieve what they want to achieve,” Neugebauer said. “On top of that, when you talk to her about her discoveries, she will credit the community.”

It is the idea of community that became the driving force behind this RNA Scholars Program, according to Steitz. In her work, she recognized the importance of Yale’s collaborative atmosphere, which advances research by prioritizing the exchange of ideas over competition between laboratories. In fact, Steitz stated that the collegial atmosphere is what makes Yale special and allows young researchers — and all students — to flourish.

While the program is only in its initial stages, Susan Baserga ’80 GRD ’88 MED ’88, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and member of the Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine, is excited about the opportunities it will create.

“I hold Dr. Steitz in the highest esteem,” Baserga said. “I think [the program] is fabulous, and only good can come of it.”

Steitz and Neugebauer hope that the RNA Scholars Program will solidify the tradition of mutual aid within the medical and biochemical research scenes at Yale by mentoring a new generation of scientists.

The Yale Center for RNA Science and Medicine holds regular programming on current research endeavors related to RNA.

SELIN NALBANTOGLU