A Close-to-Home Nobel Prize Winner


by Meglin Bodner

Growing up on a farm with two brothers and sisters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Thomas Steitz didn’t expect to be a Nobel Prize winner later in life.  Well, as it turns out, that is exactly what happened.  He won the prize for studying the structure and function of the ribosome. His work helped others to create drugs that helped cure diseases.

Professor Steitz was just an average kid in school.  In fact Mr. Steitz almost flunked the 2nd grade, but he gradually got better in school. It wasn’t until high school that he started to become interested in science. Then he moved on to get his post graduate degrees at Harvard and was an undergraduate at Lawrence College in Wisconsin.

He said his “teachers were inspiring” and both them and his mentors have been very important to his work. His first interest was stimulated by Jim Watson (who studied ribosomes), Wally Gilbert (who determined the sequence of nucleotides in nucleic acid), Paul Berg (who made contributions to the basic research in nucleic acids), and Francis Crick (who revealed the genetic code). At Lawrence College, Mr. Steitz had Professor Bob Rosenberg who got him interested in chemistry. (The professor was his ticket to an uncharted island that he would later find as remarkable.) Max Perutz also inspired Mr. Steitz on the path to chemistry.  He even gave a speech after Mr. Steitz won the Nobel Prize for building the first atomic model of hemoglobin.

Mr. Steitz became a professor of biochemistry and pursued macromolecular (large molecule) structures. A man named Brian Hartley (an enzymologist) suggested Mr. Steitz’s first independent research project. Mr. Steitz studied the enzyme wall and it surprised him that RNA was so tightly packed.

The Nobel Prize Banquet was held on December 10, 2009 in Stockholm, Sweden. About 1,500 people attended this big event. Professor Steitz was privileged to meet the King (Carl XVI Gustaf) and Queen (Silvia) of Sweden. After the banquet, he returned to his home in Stony Creek, CT. Professor Steitz was honored for his accomplishments.

We were very lucky to have Mr.Steitz and his wife, Mrs. Steitz, come to our school and give our school a lecture on their life work.  It was a privilege for us to meet a Nobel Prize Winner, because not many schools have the same opportunity.  It was a pleasure to have Mr. Steitz come to our school, and hopefully he will come in future years as well.


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