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Colleagues honor Professor Lisa Steiner of biology

Lisa Steiner
Lisa Steiner
Photo / Vincent Auyeung

Lisa Steiner, a professor of immunology and the first woman faculty member to join the Department of Biology at MIT in 1967, was honored at a special luncheon by her friends and colleagues at the MIT Faculty Club on May 22.

"I have been very fortunate to be in this wonderful department and Institute, and to work with such wonderful colleagues who have become my extended family," Steiner said after Chris Kaiser, head of the biology department, presented her with a plaque in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the department.

"It has not always been easy, but life is not always easy," Steiner added.

As a small child, Steiner left Vienna with her mother days before Hitler's Anschluss of Austria. Her family relocated to Queens, N.Y., where she attended Forest Hill High School. She loved math and was a straight A student, which did not please her mother "because life is not full of As," Steiner recalls. As a high school junior, she won the prestigious Westinghouse talent search science competition. She then attended Swarthmore College, where she majored in math.

Although a career in academic medicine was an attractive option, in her senior year Steiner decided to apply to graduate school and study math. "The best math department in the country at that time was at Princeton, but Princeton did not accept women. It bothered me a very small amount. I shrugged my shoulders and said, well, I'll go to Harvard."

After her first year of graduate school, she had exhausted the math courses she could take at Harvard and would bike to MIT to take topology classes. Graduate school in mathematics not being quite what Steiner expected, she applied to medical school and attended Yale School of Medicine, where she received her M.D. in 1959.

Doing experiments and making discoveries in a laboratory was Steiner's true calling. Intrigued by the workings of the immune system, she decided to do research in immunology. In 1962, she was awarded the prestigious Helen Hay Whitney fellowship to conduct research in immunology under the mentorship of Herman Eisen, then chair of the immunology department at Washington University School of Medicine. Steiner has been a member of the trustees of the Helen Hay Whitney foundation for 25 years and is currently serving as vice president of the board of trustees of the foundation.

For many years, Steiner was a role model and inspiration to the few female graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Biology. The department has come a long way since she was first hired, and now has more than 28 percent female faculty, 50 percent female graduate students and more than 65 percent female undergraduate biology majors.

At the luncheon in her honor, her MIT colleagues took turns paying tribute to her science, her strength, her character, her integrity and her kindness.

"Lisa has been a tremendous inspiration to me, for her ability to combine research with teaching and community service, and do it with passion," said Professor Graham Walker. Professor Boris Magasanik, a colleague and close friend, told how important it has been for MIT undergraduate biology majors interested in medical school to have a faculty member to talk to.

Professor Uttam Rajbhandary, a colleague of 40 years and current associate head of the biology department, told the audience that Jack Buchanan, who passed away earlier this year, "was always very proud to have been the man who persuaded Lisa to join the department, where she has been among the precious few immunologists that the department has had. Lisa, you are among the most calm, kind and relaxed people I have known. Congratulations for being who you are."

These sentiments are shared by many of her colleagues in the department: "I've always respected and appreciated Lisa's wisdom, about science and about life. I got to know Lisa when I was a young faculty member and some of the biology faculty had lunch together. I am lucky to have had the privilege of talking with Lisa daily. She is a wonderful human being and a great friend," wrote Nobel laureate H. Robert Horvitz, the David H. Koch Professor of Cancer Biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

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