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Professor JoAnne Stubbe received the 2009 National Medal of Science for her pioneering work in understanding the enzymes involved in DNA replication and repair.
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After studying chemistry, math, and art history in her undergraduate years, JoAnne Stubbe went into graduate school thinking she would study the chemical effect of light on paintings. She had no idea she would go on to unravel protein mechanisms that replicate and repair DNA and win a National Medal of Science, the nation’s top science award, for this work.

President Barack H. Obama presented the medal to Stubbe, a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT, along with eight other scientists at a White House ceremony on October 7.

The prize committee cited Stubbe’s “groundbreaking experiments establishing the mechanisms of ribonucleotide reductases, polyester synthases, and natural product DNA cleavers — compelling demonstrations of the power of chemical investigations to solve problems in biology.”

This work, and other research Stubbe has conducted throughout her career, has both expanded scientific knowledge and contributed to the design of drugs for cancer and sickle cell diseases.

Stubbe’s colleagues and students admire her passion for her work and hands-on approach to research.

She comes into the lab every day to look at raw data and check in with lab members: “I like to hear about the pieces and solve the puzzle myself,” she said. “There’s nothing else that compares to the thrill of making a discovery and seeing everything falling into place.”

Stephen J. Lippard, a colleague of Stubbe’s in the Department of Chemistry, said, “She is an intense and intelligent scientist and I greatly enjoyed working with her. She keeps standards high. She’s one of the people I enjoy talking with about science and getting feedback from.”

Stubbe’s students say her passion extends beyond the lab and into the classroom: “She definitely cares about teaching. Anyone who’s taken her classes can attest to that. There’s no other teacher at her level who cares as much,” said Vinay Tripuraneni ’11, an undergraduate student in her lab.

“She explains things very well and is always really excited to teach,” said Karis E. Stevenson ’12, a student in 5.07 (Biological Chemistry I), which Stubbe is teaching this term.

In the past, Stubbe has had to teach classes that she had never taken as a student: “You have to read a bunch of papers, really think about what you read, synthesize what is important, and present that information to the class.”

In one such experience, she co-taught a course that guided students in developing proposals to treat diseases including malaria and hepatitis C, and presenting them to companies.

Stubbe arrived at MIT in 1987 after teaching at the University of Wisconsin. “In the end, my science has changed for the better here, through working with intelligent scientists who are able to talk across disciplines,” she said of her experience at MIT.

Stubbe has spent sabbaticals in x-ray crystallography, yeast genetics, and inorganic chemistry: “I try to learn new technology in areas peripheral to what I work on in the lab to bring new dimension,” she said.

Stubbe feels “exceedingly lucky” to be doing her work. “Very few people can get jobs where they like to come to work all the time and are really excited about what they do.”

The National Medal of Science, created in 1959 and administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation, is awarded annually to recognize individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. Nominees are selected by a committee of Presidential appointees.