AB, Chemistry and Biology, Bryn Mawr College
PhD, Cell Biology, Stanford University School of Medicine
As a child, Joan Weliky Conaway, PhD, often accompanied her scientist father to his lab on Saturday mornings. "I pretended to conduct experiments while my dad was busy with his work," she says. “Scientific labs became a very comfortable and familiar place to me.” Today Conaway is a Stowers investigator and member of one of science's most accomplished research teams, "The Conaways," known for uncovering many of the mechanisms that underlie gene transcription, the first step in gene expression.
Conaway’s early scientific explorations matured into a passion for biomedical science the summer after her freshman year at Bryn Mawr College. She had entertained the option of majoring in political science, until she started working in the immunology lab of a pharmaceutical company. “I saw the connections between what I had been learning about cells in the classroom and what happens in real cells in the lab,” she says. “That’s when I decided to become a scientist.”
After graduating in 1979 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry and biology, Conaway joined the lab of Roger Kornberg, PhD, at Stanford University as a graduate student. Her future husband, Ron Conaway, was conducting graduate studies in another lab at the university. Kornberg, who would receive the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering studies on gene transcription, encouraged the two talented young scientists to join forces to tackle what was then a scientific mystery: the identity of the molecular factors that launch the transcription process. Joan and Ron have been a team — both in research and in life — ever since. After Conaway earned a PhD in cell biology at Stanford, she conducted her postdoctoral studies at the DNAX Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. The Conaways then took faculty positions at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. They joined the Stowers Institute in 2001.
The Conaways were among the first researchers to join the Stowers Institute and have been an integral part of its growth into a respected research powerhouse. Joan says she’s glad they made the decision to make the Institute, and Kansas City, their home. “Everything has turned out better than we could have imagined,” she says. “The Institute has made an enormous investment in technology and has recruited spectacular researchers with whom we enjoy collaborating. We could not have accomplished what we have if not for our colleagues here.”
From their early days working long hours together in the lab at Stanford, the Conaways have approached their research as a team. The couple has made a conscious effort to share both responsibility and credit, taking turns on being senior author when publishing papers. “We take pleasure in each other's success,” Conaway says. “But that's how it should be with any group of colleagues. Scientific collaborations are more effective when researchers who work together don't compete with each other but celebrate their colleagues' successes.”
To unwind, Joan and Ron listen to live jazz music, enjoy Kansas City restaurant cuisine, and hang out at home.
The Conaway Lab investigates the mechanisms that underlie gene transcription—the process that copies the information in DNA into a new molecule of messenger RNA. In addition to revealing how gene transcription occurs at the molecular level, the Conaways' research has highlighted some of the steps in the process that may play a role in cancer and other diseases.
The human genome contains about 25,000 genes with the instructions for building all the proteins in the body. But before construction of any protein can begin, the genetic information contained within the DNA must first be copied into RNA by the cell’s transcription machinery. Critical steps in this process include initiation, when the enzyme RNA polymerase II finds the beginning of a gene and starts to copy it, and elongation, the stage when the RNA strand lengthens. Over their careers, the Conaways have produced a body of work that helps to explain how transcription of messenger RNA is regulated. They defined several of the key transcription factors needed for initiation and were the first to reproduce transcription initiation by RNA polymerase II in the test tube with pure proteins. In addition, they identified transcription elongation factors Elongin and ELL. Many of their discoveries have focused on Elongin, a molecule that plays two roles in transcription — acting as a facilitator by restarting transcription machinery when it sputters or a destroyer by marking the transcription machinery to be decommissioned when it is stalled – while others centered around understanding how a very large protein complex called the Mediator coordinates the activities of ELL and other transcription factors during initiation and elongation. Their studies on these molecules could give insight into diseases that result from the process going awry.
In recognition of their achievements Joan was an Associate Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute between 1997 and 2001. Both Ron and Joan received the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology/Amgen Award in 1997 and were elected in 2002 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2020.