Steitz ’62 awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Michael Schreiber

Thomas Steitz ’62 became
Lawrence University’s first Nobel
laureate Wednesday, Oct. 7 when the
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
announced that the 2009 Nobel
Prize in Chemistry would go to Steiz,
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and
Ada Yonath “for studies of the structure
and function of the ribosome.”
In addition to the prestige associated
with a Nobel, each scientist
will receive a third of the 10 million
Swedish kronor prize, valued at
approximately $1.4 million.
All three scientists have successfully
mapped the molecular structure
of the ribosome using a technique
called x-ray crystallography.
One seminal paper detailing Steitz’s
work, titled “The Complete Atomic
Structure of the Large Ribosomal
Subunit at 2.4  Resolution,”
appeared in the journal Science in
2000.
According to a press release
from the Royal Swedish Academy
of Sciences, ribosomes “produce
proteins, which in turn control the
chemistry in all living organisms. As
ribosomes are crucial to life, they are
also a major target for new antibiotics.”
Thus, ribosome research has a
large impact on human health.
Currently, Steitz is the Sterling
professor of molecular biophysics
and biochemistry at Yale University
and an investigator with the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute.
When he was at Lawrence, Steitz
was mentored by Robert Rosenberg,
emeritus professor of chemistry at
Lawrence University and adjunct professor
of chemistry at Northwestern
University. Rosenberg served as a
professor of chemistry at Lawrence
from 1956 to 1991, when he retired.
Rosenberg recalled that Steitz
“was clearly a very strong student,
with a keen curiosity and a drive to
learn as much as he could.”
According to Rosenberg, Steitz
turned a critical eye to many aspects
of his studies. “When he spent a
term at the Associated Colleges of
the Midwest program at Argonne
National Laboratory, he had sensible
criticisms of his research supervisor
there,” Rosenberg said.
He added that, like so many
Lawrence students, Steitz had broad
interests in the liberal arts and
music.
“A liberal arts college like
Lawrence encourages student
breadth, and Tom [Steitz] took
advantage of that opportunity,” said
Rosenberg. “One reason that he came
to Lawrence was that he would be
able to continue study on his trumpet
at the Lawrence Conservatory.”
Steitz graduated from Lawrence
cum laude with a bachelor’s degree
in chemistry.
Although Rosenberg said he had
“no idea” Steitz would be a Nobel
laureate, he was sure Steitz would
“be a good scientist.”
Rosenberg added that Lawrence’s
liberal arts environment fosters the
kind of meteoric career that Steitz
has achieved.
“At Lawrence, classes are small,
and the faculty takes a personal
interest in students,” Rosenberg said.
“A good student can take advantage
of that faculty contact to learn more
than he or she could learn from class
alone.”
Rosenberg provided some advice,
saying that current Lawrence students
will find great success in their
careers if “they are smart enough
and work very hard.

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