"Do not give up and stick to it, even if public opinion is against you."

In this interview, Joan A. Steitz shares her perspective on careers, mentoring and fixing the leaky pipeline.

What made you become a scientist?

Interest in science, as well my father: He was a high school counselor, and I think he really had sort of wanted to be a scientist. Somehow, he felt that he was not up to it, but it was his hidden passion. He was very interested in many scientific things and very encouraging for me.

Who were your scientific role models and can you give us an example of what you learned from them?

The people I stumbled into working for. Joe Gall was a big influence and certainly Jim Watson, as well as other people that I have worked with. The way Jim Watson ran his lab and what he tried to do with his students is certainly, what I aspire to. It was very non-regimented and it was up to people to decide what they were going to do and then figure out how to do it. Also, everything was very communal in terms of discussing science.

Could you share with us a scientific “aha” moment?

I remember going home late at night after developing the film, which provided the first evidence for the base pairing between the messenger and ribosomal RNAs of bacteria, thinking “Wow, what if this is a new principle and this is how ribosomes initiate?” Now, of course, this is not how our ribosomes do so but the bacterial ones. So that was a big “aha” moment and there were a few others…

How did you get into the RNA research field and can you comment on its evolution?

I think it was serendipity and I feel very fortunate to have stumbled into this particular area because wonderful things keep happening. Now we have condensates and liquid droplets and RNA is involved in those. Oh my goodness.

“ So that was a big ‘aha’ moment and there were a few others …”

More and more researchers are posting preprints on bioRxiv: Are you supporting this?

Not necessarily, because I have had so many experiences where sending a paper to a journal and getting the referees’ reports has made us think about things we did not think about before and made us do things that we would not have done. I am just sort of embarrassed by the thought of putting something out there before that has happened. I like the refereeing aspect and the response to referees as long as it is reasonable. Sometimes nowadays, it is unreasonable what is asked for.

But when the field was small, researchers sent manuscripts to each other before submitting them to journals.

It is similar to that, but to me, it does not feel the same. Back then, you knew exactly to whom you were sending the manuscript and that those people, if they found something wrong, felt responsible that they had to get back to you about it. Whereas if you post it on bioRxiv, then it is up for grabs for anybody to make comments about it. That is why I feel differently about it, but I know that bioRxiv has proven to be a valuable tool for many people. It is not that I am against it, but I have not encouraged anybody in my lab to do it but maybe I should. I am thinking about that.

Do you judge an academic career to be more or less attractive today?

My judgment is that it is harder now than it used to be, because of where the field of biomedicine and molecular biology stands. There is so much happening and it became so competitive that it is not the same as when the field was small, and everybody knew what everybody else was doing. At that time, everybody seemed to be working together towards the same goal of obtaining knowledge and figuring out how things work. In that sense, I think it has become more difficult. Nowadays, on the other hand, it is perhaps more standardized in terms of what the routes towards success are.

“My judgment is that it is harder now than it used to be.”

What is your opinion on careers outside of science?

People should do what they want to do. If everybody only wanted to do science, it would be a pretty crazy world, because a lot of other things would not get done. I always find that having diversity in terms of what people like to think about and what they want to accomplish is a wonderful thing. However, I am occasionally disappointed when students or postdocs do not go into academia when I see that they have all the qualities that it would take to succeed, and for random reasons, they decide not to do so. On the other hand, I have had many students and postdocs who have gone into other career directions and it is great because it is perfect for them.

“Yes, because you have to feel ownership.”

You advise that everybody, including undergraduate students, should have their own project.

Yes, because you have to feel ownership. It is only then that you have your whole heart and mind dedicated to thinking about the project and moving it forward. Nobody else is going to move it forward if you do not push it forward. Some people do not like that and then they should not be doing science in my opinion.

Another piece of advice you give is to take vacation, what amount would you suggest?

That depends on what is going on, and how intense things are at the moment because there are always ups and downs during a scientific career. There are times, which are very exciting, and you have to be spending as much time as possible on your science. Then there are other times, when it is important just to keep doing something, and then things will happen. Do not give up and stick to it, even if public opinion is against you.

What actions need to be taken to fix the leaky pipeline regarding women in academia?

There are now many studies about how to cope with implicit bias when it comes to hiring, promotion, and grant decisions. Those are all good and should be implemented. However, I think there is an even bigger problem and that is social identity/stereotype threat. Persons, who are in a given setting in the minority, enter into a state of vigilance and feel uncomfortable. People should understand that this is a normal cognitive and physiological reaction. At least for me, it has been very revealing and helpful in terms of my understanding of myself and how I cope with various situations. So there I think it is a matter of education.

“What is great about science is that it does self-correct.”

How long did it take you to overcome social identity threat?

First, I needed to learn about it, which was in 2007, when a brilliant paper (Murphy et al., Psychological Science (2007) 18:879) on this topic was sent to me. After reading about it, I realized, “Oh my god, this is what has been happening to me for years.”, and then it became easier to change my own behavior. I finally figured out that people wanted to have me on a panel because then they could report that they had one or two females. Since I never said anything, I did not disrupt anything. I did not realize until years later why I was feeling that way. Now I am much more outspoken and I say what I think instead of just shutting up. To be affected by social identity threat, I believe is true for a lot of women, and it is true for people belonging to ethnic or racial minorities. I think that there is a vast number of people in science that are affected by this phenomenon for a variety of reasons.

Having panels equally composed of males and females would put a massive workload on female PIs because far less than fifty percent of current faculty members are female.

Female scientists being asked to be more represented on study sections or other types of committees than there are female scientists in the pool that is being selected from, makes me turn angry and I consider this exploitation.

“I do not think that the public understands that aspect of science.”

Do you think that science is in a trust crisis regarding the public?

I think with respect to the public, where one gets the most outrage is on finding that sometimes scientists publish things that are not correct, or that turn out not to be right later on. Here I am not talking about cases of fraud, which are a completely different thing, but a lot of the findings that turn out to be wrong depend on how the experiment was done. It may have been perfectly valid at the time; it is just that in a different or novel context that does not turn out to be the result. I do not think that the public understands that aspect of science.

This is particularly true in biological science, where you work with messy systems and you have no idea what exactly is in your test tube. Therefore, you have to do all sorts of controls and if you miss out on the wrong control, you might come to a mistaken conclusion. What is great about science is that it does self-correct. Even if people have great ideas that seem to be the solution to problems at one particular point, they may either not be the whole solution or they may be partially wrong, but that gets fixed. Sometimes a concept, even if it sounds foolish, has to be out there for other people to think about it and further refine it.

Advice for Mentees:

  • If making discoveries in science gives you joy, go for it!
  • Keep exposing yourself to more diverse aspects of science.
  • Go to meetings. Connections are important.
  • Take on the most challenging questions.
  • Everyone (even undergrads) should have their own projects.
  • Stick to it – even if public opinion is against you.
  • Diverse groups of people come up with the most creative solutions to problems.
  • When you start a new lab, keep the most important problems for yourself.
  • Take vacations.
  • Choose a supportive partner.
  • Teach: both by mentoring undergraduates and in the classroom.

Slide content from Joan A. Steitz’s keynote “Reflections and Perspectives on a Career in Science” at the Supervision of Scientific Success Symposium in October 2019 at ETH Zurich.

Biography Joan A. Steitz

Joan A. Steitz obtained her PhD in 1967 from Harvard University, Cambridge, USA. After postdoctoral research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK she was in 1970 appointed assistant professor at Yale University, New Haven, USA, where she was subsequently promoted to associate, full and Sterling professor. Steitz is an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She received numerous honorary degrees and awards including the National Medal of Science, the RNA Society Lifetime Achievement Award, the Gairdner Foundation International Award, the L’Oréal Award for Women in Science and the Lasker ~ Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science.

Website Steitz Lab

This interview was conducted in the context of Joan A. Steitz’s visit to Zurich in October 2019 as a keynote speaker of the Supervision of Scientific Success Symposium, which was organized by the D-HEST Association of Scientific Staff (HAS). We thank the organizers for providing the opportunity to conduct this interview.

Interview: Dominik Theler