Sarah A. Woodson

Born: October 7, 1961 | Warren, MI, US

Sarah A. Woodson was born in Warren, Michigan. Though her father believed that women had a subservient place in society and should not work, Woodson's mother helped her get into Kalamazoo College, where she studied chemistry. After spending a year at a lab in France, she began working in Morton Rabin's lab at Wayne State University. Next, she went to Yale University, where she studied nucleic acids using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. After five years there, she spent three years as a postdoc with Thomas Cech at University of Colorado. There she studied RNA, discovering reverse self-splicing. She is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches, runs her lab, publishes, and mentors lab members.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0507
No. of pages: 91
Minutes: 295

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
19-21 July 1999
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

Abstract of Interview

Sarah A. Woodson was born and raised in Warren, Michigan. Her father was a music teacher; Sarah's mother, who was from Amsterdam, Holland, was a housewife until her children were older, when she finished college and became a teacher. Sarah began as a violinist and soon switched to piano. She was always interested in science, beginning in second grade with the solar system. She believes that she was shy, and she took refuge in books, reading a great deal of the time. Her father believed that women had a certain subservient place in society and should follow certain codes of behavior, codes that did not permit married women to work. But Sarah's mother helped Sarah rebel against the strictures and go into science in college. She attended Kalamazoo College, majoring in chemistry and being graduated Phi Beta Kappa. After spending a year at a lab in France, she had to do a research project, which she did in Morton Rabin's lab at Wayne State University. From Michigan Woodson went to Yale University, where she worked in Donald M. Crothers' lab, studying nucleic acids using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). After five years there she spent three years as a postdoc with Thomas Cech at University of Colorado. There she studied RNA, discovering reverse self-splicing. While there she met her future husband, Steven Rokita. She then accepted a position at the University of Maryland, and she and Rokita, who was on the chemistry faculty at State University of New York at Stony Brook, began their relationship. While at Maryland Sarah developed a revised biochemistry program for undergraduates. She moved from assistant to associate professor, when she was granted tenure; then she obtained full professorship. At that point she was offered a position at Johns Hopkins University, where she continues to teach, run her lab, publish, write grant proposals, and mentor her lab members. Her work on the structures and interactions of RNA continues. Her husband, Steven Rokita, is now a faculty member in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1982 Kalamazoo College BA
1987 Yale University PhD

Professional Experience

University of Colorado, Boulder

1988 to 1990
Postdoctoral Fellow

University of Maryland, College Park

1990 to 1996
Assistant Professor
1996 to 1999
Associate Professor

Johns Hopkins University



Year(s) Award
1988 to 1990

American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow

1993 to 1995

American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research Award

1993 to 1997

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Early Years

Family background. Woodson's musical training. Her love of reading. Family'sbrief stay in Huemoz, Switzerland. Attends a conservative Baptist high school. Parents' religious background. Woodson's early interest in becoming a scientist. Participates in a special middle school physics and chemistry program. Herfather's views about gender roles.

College Years

Enters Kalamazoo College. Foreign study in France. Research project with Morton Rabin at Wayne State University, using NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) to study crown ether molecules

Graduate School Years

Enters Yale University on full fellowship. Uses NMR to study the structure and interactions of nucleic acids in Donald M. Crothers' laboratory. A course with Alan M. Weiner introduces her to Thomas R. Cech's work in self-splicing of RNA.

Postgraduate Years

Pursues a postdoc in the Thomas R. Cech laboratory at University of Colorado at Boulder; chemistry background suits Cech. Studies self-splicing in RNA. She enjoys outdoor athletic activities particular to region.

Early Faculty Years

Accepts assistant professorship at University of Maryland. Meets and marries Steven Rokita. Continues work on reverse self-splicing. Advances to associate, then tenured professorship. Revamps undergraduate biochemistry program.

Johns Hopkins University

Accepts a tenured position at Johns Hopkins University. Continues study of formation of complex RNA structures. Teaching and administrative responsibilities. Funding. Running her lab. Underrepresentation of women and African-Americans in science. Writing for publication. Balancing life with husband and life in the lab.


About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen